Evidence that severe asthma can be divided pathologically into two inflammatory subtypes with distinct physiologic and clinical characteristics

Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 1999 Sep;160(3):1001-8. doi: 10.1164/ajrccm.160.3.9812110.


The mechanisms associated with the development of severe, corticosteroid (CS)-dependent asthma are poorly understood, but likely heterogenous. It was hypothesized that severe asthma could be divided pathologically into two inflammatory groups based on the presence or absence of eosinophils, and that the inflammatory subtype would be associated with distinct structural, physiologic, and clinical characteristics. Thirty-four severe, refractory CS-dependent asthmatics were evaluated with endobronchial biopsy, pulmonary function, allergy testing, and clinical history. Milder asthmatic and normal control subjects were also evaluated. Tissue cell types and subbasement membrane (SBM) thickness were evaluated immunohistochemically. Fourteen severe asthmatics [eosinophil (-)] had nearly absent eosinophils (< 2 SD from the normal mean). The remaining 20 severe asthmatics were categorized as eosinophil (+). Eosinophil (+) severe asthmatics had associated increases (p < 0.05) in lymphocytes (CD3+, CD4+, CD8+), mast cells, and macrophages. Neutrophils were increased in severe asthmatics and not different between the groups. The SBM was significantly thicker in eosinophil (+) severe asthmatics than eosinophil (-) severe asthmatics and correlated with eosinophil numbers (r = 0.50). Despite the absence of eosinophils and the thinner SBM, the FEV(1) was marginally lower in eosinophil (-) asthmatics (p = 0.05) with no difference in bronchodilator response. The eosinophil (+) group (with a thicker SBM) had more intubations than the eosinophil (-) group (p = 0.0004). Interestingly, this group also had a decreased FVC/slow vital capacity (SVC). These results suggest that two distinct pathologic, physiologic, and clinical subtypes of severe asthma exist, with implications for further research and treatment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Asthma / classification*
  • Asthma / pathology*
  • Asthma / physiopathology
  • Basement Membrane / pathology
  • Biopsy
  • Bronchoalveolar Lavage Fluid / chemistry
  • Bronchoalveolar Lavage Fluid / cytology
  • Bronchoscopy
  • Cell Count
  • Chi-Square Distribution
  • Eosinophils / pathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Inflammation / pathology
  • Lung / pathology
  • Male
  • Respiratory Function Tests
  • Statistics, Nonparametric