Opsonic Phagocytosis in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Is Enhanced by Nrf2 Agonists

Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2018 Sep 15;198(6):739-750. doi: 10.1164/rccm.201705-0903OC.


Rationale: Previous studies have identified defects in bacterial phagocytosis by alveolar macrophages (AMs) in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but the mechanisms and clinical consequences remain incompletely defined.

Objectives: To examine the effect of COPD on AM phagocytic responses and identify the mechanisms, clinical consequences, and potential for therapeutic manipulation of these defects.

Methods: We isolated AMs and monocyte-derived macrophages (MDMs) from a cohort of patients with COPD and control subjects within the Medical Research Council COPDMAP consortium and measured phagocytosis of bacteria in relation to opsonic conditions and clinical features.

Measurements and main results: COPD AMs and MDMs have impaired phagocytosis of Streptococcus pneumoniae. COPD AMs have a selective defect in uptake of opsonized bacteria, despite the presence of antipneumococcal antibodies in BAL, not observed in MDMs or healthy donor AMs. AM defects in phagocytosis in COPD are significantly associated with exacerbation frequency, isolation of pathogenic bacteria, and health-related quality-of-life scores. Bacterial binding and initial intracellular killing of opsonized bacteria in COPD AMs was not reduced. COPD AMs have reduced transcriptional responses to opsonized bacteria, such as cellular stress responses that include transcriptional modules involving antioxidant defenses and Nrf2 (nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2)-regulated genes. Agonists of the cytoprotective transcription factor Nrf2 (sulforaphane and compound 7) reverse defects in phagocytosis of S. pneumoniae and nontypeable Haemophilus influenzae by COPD AMs.

Conclusions: Patients with COPD have clinically relevant defects in opsonic phagocytosis by AMs, associated with impaired transcriptional responses to cellular stress, which are reversed by therapeutic targeting with Nrf2 agonists.

Keywords: antioxidant; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; macrophage; nuclear factor erythroid 2–related factor 2 (Nrf2); phagocytosis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Isothiocyanates / pharmacology
  • Macrophages / drug effects
  • Macrophages / physiology
  • Macrophages, Alveolar / drug effects
  • Macrophages, Alveolar / physiology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • NF-E2-Related Factor 2 / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Phagocytosis / drug effects*
  • Phagocytosis / physiology
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / physiopathology*
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae


  • Isothiocyanates
  • NF-E2-Related Factor 2
  • NFE2L2 protein, human
  • sulforafan