Rationale: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a heterogeneous disease and likely includes a subgroup that is biologically comparable to asthma. Studying asthma-associated gene expression changes in COPD could add insight into COPD pathogenesis and reveal biomarkers that predict a favorable response to corticosteroids.
Objectives: To determine whether asthma-associated gene signatures are increased in COPD and associated with asthma-related features.
Methods: We compared disease-associated airway epithelial gene expression alterations in an asthma cohort (n = 105) and two COPD cohorts (n = 237, 171). The T helper type 2 (Th2) signature (T2S) score, a gene expression metric induced in Th2-high asthma, was evaluated in these COPD cohorts. The T2S score was correlated with asthma-related features and response to corticosteroids in COPD in a randomized, placebo-controlled trial, the Groningen and Leiden Universities study of Corticosteroids in Obstructive Lung Disease (GLUCOLD; n = 89).
Measurements and main results: The 200 genes most differentially expressed in asthma versus healthy control subjects were enriched among genes associated with more severe airflow obstruction in these COPD cohorts (P < 0.001), suggesting significant gene expression overlap. A higher T2S score was associated with decreased lung function (P < 0.001), but not asthma history, in both COPD cohorts. Higher T2S scores correlated with increased airway wall eosinophil counts (P = 0.003), blood eosinophil percentage (P = 0.03), bronchodilator reversibility (P = 0.01), and improvement in hyperinflation after corticosteroid treatment (P = 0.019) in GLUCOLD.
Conclusions: These data identify airway gene expression alterations that can co-occur in asthma and COPD. The association of the T2S score with increased severity and "asthma-like" features (including a favorable corticosteroid response) in COPD suggests that Th2 inflammation is important in a COPD subset that cannot be identified by clinical history of asthma.
Keywords: biological markers; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; gene expression profiling.