Neutrophil extracellular traps are associated with disease severity and microbiota diversity in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2018 Jan;141(1):117-127. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2017.04.022. Epub 2017 May 13.


Background: Neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs) have been observed in the airway in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but their clinical and pathophysiologic implications have not been defined.

Objective: We sought to determine whether NETs are associated with disease severity in patients with COPD and how they are associated with microbiota composition and airway neutrophil function.

Methods: NET protein complexes (DNA-elastase and histone-elastase complexes), cell-free DNA, and neutrophil biomarkers were quantified in soluble sputum and serum from patients with COPD during periods of disease stability and during exacerbations and compared with clinical measures of disease severity and the sputum microbiome. Peripheral blood and airway neutrophil function were evaluated by means of flow cytometry ex vivo and experimentally after stimulation of NET formation.

Results: Sputum NET complexes were associated with the severity of COPD evaluated by using the composite Global Initiative for Obstructive Lung Disease scale (P < .0001). This relationship was due to modest correlations between NET complexes and FEV1, symptoms evaluated by using the COPD assessment test, and higher levels of NET complexes in patients with frequent exacerbations (P = .002). Microbiota composition was heterogeneous, but there was a correlation between NET complexes and both microbiota diversity (P = .009) and dominance of Haemophilus species operational taxonomic units (P = .01). Ex vivo airway neutrophil phagocytosis of bacteria was reduced in patients with increased sputum NET complexes. Consistent results were observed regardless of the method of quantifying sputum NETs. Failure of phagocytosis could be induced experimentally by incubating healthy control neutrophils with soluble sputum from patients with COPD.

Conclusion: NET formation is increased in patients with severe COPD and associated with more frequent exacerbations and a loss of microbiota diversity.

Keywords: Haemophilus species; Neutrophils; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; exacerbations; phagocytosis.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Extracellular Traps* / immunology
  • Extracellular Traps* / microbiology
  • Humans
  • Microbiota / immunology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive* / immunology
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive* / microbiology
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive* / pathology
  • Severity of Illness Index*
  • Sputum / immunology*