Background: There is a need for easily measurable markers of airway inflammation to guide the use of anti-inflammatory treatment in asthma. Eosinophilic cationic protein (ECP) levels in sputum and blood correlate with clinical severity, and serial measurements of ECP have been proposed as a suitable candidate.
Aims and methods: Our aim was to confirm that sputum and serum ECP measurements would provide a more sensitive indicator of responses to asthma treatment than eosinophil counts per se, in a randomized, placebo-controlled, crossover study of terbutaline, budesonide, and their combination in patients with chronic persistent asthma. We compared the changes in eosinophil counts and ECP in induced sputum and blood during each treatment period.
Results: Budesonide and combined treatment caused a significant reduction in sputum eosinophils (-2.7% and -2.3%, respectively, P < 0.05). Sputum eosinophils increased with terbutaline (+3.9%, P = 0.049). In contrast, the changes for sputum ECP were not significant. There was a similar treatment effect on blood eosinophils, but not for serum ECP. Correlations between sputum and blood eosinophils were significant with and without budesonide, but were nonsignificant between sputum and blood ECP during the active treatments. Correlations between sputum eosinophils and ECP, and between blood eosinophils and serum ECP were greatest during treatment with placebo or terbutaline alone: budesonide weakened or abolished these relationships.
Conclusions: Compared with eosinophil counts, ECP measurements in either induced sputum or serum failed to reflect treatment-related changes in chronic asthma. We conclude that ECP is not a sensitive or reliable means of evaluating airway inflammation, and can not be recommended for assessing responses to anti-inflammatory therapy.