For more than 30 years, asthmatics have walked around with portable inhalers in their pockets. Taking a puff of medication from an inhaler, patients can stifle an asthma attack. If they inhale medicine daily, they may even prevent asthma attacks entirely.

But there's a problem. Studies suggest that many asthma patients use inhalers incorrectly and end up with less medicine than they need. They might inhale their medication too quickly, for example. In many cases, asthma patients end up swallowing the medicine rather than breathing it into their lungs.

In response, many companies are working on asthma drugs that would be taken as pills rather than inhaled. But researchers at Aradigm Corp. in Hayward, Calif., say they've got a better solution: automated inhalers. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved Aradigm's SmartMist inhaler system, which should hit pharmacy shelves later this year.

"Taking [asthma] drugs by inhalation is effective...

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