Background: Studies on the inflammatory process in the large airways of patients with mild/moderate COPD have shown a prevalent T lymphocyte and macrophage infiltration of the bronchial mucosa. However, bronchial inflammation in more severe disease has not been extensively studied.
Objective: The aim of the present study was to characterize the lymphocyte infiltration in the bronchial mucosa of subjects with severe, compared to mild, COPD, and to examine the relationship between airflow limitation and T lymphocyte numbers in the bronchial mucosa.
Methods: We examined bronchial biopsies obtained from nine smokers with severe airflow limitation, nine smokers with mild/moderate airflow limitation and 14 smokers with normal lung function. Immunohistochemical methods on cryostat sections were used to assess the number of CD3+, CD4+, CD8+ cells and the number of CD3+ cells coexpressing the chemokine receptor CCR5 (CCR5+CD3+) in the subepithelium.
Results: Subjects with severe COPD had lower numbers of CD3+, CD8+ and CCR5+CD3+ cells than mild/moderate COPD (P < 0.012, P < 0.02 and P < 0.02, respectively) and control smokers (P < 0.015, P < 0.005 and P < 0.015, respectively). In subjects with airflow limitation the number of CD3+ and CD8+ cells was inversely correlated with the degree of airway obstruction (r = 0.59, P < 0.015 and r = 0.52, P < 0.032, respectively).
Conclusions: Bronchial inflammation in severe COPD is characterized by lower numbers of CD3+ and CD8+ cells and decreased numbers of CD3+ cells coexpressing the chemokine receptor CCR5. T lymphocyte infiltration is inversely correlated with the degree of airflow limitation.