Background: Potentially pathogenic microorganisms can be detected by quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) in sputum from patients with COPD, although how this technique relates to culture and clinical measures of disease is unclear. We used cross-sectional and longitudinal data to test the hypotheses that qPCR is a more sensitive measure of bacterial presence and is associated with neutrophilic airway inflammation and adverse clinical outcomes.
Methods: Sputum was collected from 174 stable COPD subjects longitudinally over 12 months. Microbial sampling using culture and qPCR was performed. Spirometry and sputum measures of airway inflammation were assessed.
Findings: Sputum was qPCR-positive (>10(6) copies/mL) in 77/152 samples (Haemophilus influenzae [n=52], Moraxella catarrhalis [n=24], Streptococcus pneumoniae [n=19], and Staphylococcus aureus [n=7]). Sputum was culture-positive in 50/174 samples, with 49 out of 50 culture-positive samples having pathogen-specific qPCR bacterial loads >10(6) copies/mL. Samples that had qPCR copy numbers >10(6)/mL, whether culture-positive or not, had increased sputum neutrophil counts. H. influenzae qPCR copy numbers correlated with sputum neutrophil counts (r=0.37, P<0.001), were repeatable within subjects, and were >10(6)/mL three or more times in 19 patients, eight of whom were repeatedly sputum culture-positive. Persistence, whether defined by culture, qPCR, or both, was associated with a higher sputum neutrophil count, lower forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1), and worsened quality of life.
Interpretation: qPCR identifies a significant number of patients with potentially bacteria-associated neutrophilic airway inflammation and disease that are not identified by traditional culture-based methods.
Keywords: H. influenzae; qPCR; sputum.