May 19, 2014 9:32 AM EDT

Researchers said Sunday that they have identified two drugs which could aid breathing and prolong life for patients suffering from an incurable lung disease.

The drugs, pirfenidone and nintedanib, slow the decline of patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, the researchers said during a meeting of the American Thoracic Society in San Diego. Their findings were published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Although the drugs do not cure the disease, which scars and thickens the lungs making it hard to breathe, researchers called the findings a “major breakthrough” for an ailment that until now has had no treatment at all.

“I suspect that many of my patients have picked up on more than a hint of frustration in my voice when I tell them that the cause of their shortness of breath is idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis,” Dr. Gary M. Hunninghake, a lung specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, wrote in an editorial accompanying the study. “This frustration stems from the fact that beyond providing information about prognosis or referral for lung transplantation or palliation, there has been little to offer in the way of treatment. …The game has now changed.”

The drugs’ manufacturers helped pay for the study, the New York Times reports. At least 80,000 Americans suffer from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which causes scarring of the lungs and is fatal within three to five years for most patients.

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