Background: COPD is a progressive disease of the airways that is characterized by neutrophilic inflammation, a condition known to promote the excessive formation of neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs). The presence of large amounts of NETs has recently been demonstrated for a variety of inflammatory lung diseases including cystic fibrosis, asthma and exacerbated COPD.
Objective: We test whether excessive NET generation is restricted to exacerbation of COPD or whether it also occurs during stable periods of the disease, and whether NET presence and amount correlates with the severity of airflow limitation.
Patients, materials and methods: Sputum samples from four study groups were examined: COPD patients during acute exacerbation, patients with stable disease, and smoking and non-smoking controls without airflow limitation. Sputum induction followed the ECLIPSE protocol. Confocal laser microscopy (CLSM) and electron microscopy were used to analyse samples. Immunolabelling and fluorescent DNA staining were applied to trace NETs and related marker proteins. CLSM specimens served for quantitative evaluation.
Results: Sputum of COPD patients is clearly characterised by NETs and NET-forming neutrophils. The presence of large amounts of NET is associated with disease severity (p < 0.001): over 90 % in exacerbated COPD, 45 % in stable COPD, and 25 % in smoking controls, but less than 5% in non-smokers. Quantification of NET-covered areas in sputum preparations confirms these results.
Conclusions: NET formation is not confined to exacerbation but also present in stable COPD and correlates with the severity of airflow limitation. We infer that NETs are a major contributor to chronic inflammatory and lung tissue damage in COPD.