Activation and polarization of circulating monocytes in severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

BMC Pulm Med. 2018 Jun 15;18(1):101. doi: 10.1186/s12890-018-0664-y.


Background: The ability of circulating monocytes to develop into lung macrophages and promote lung tissue damage depends upon their phenotypic pattern of differentiation and activation. Whether this phenotypic pattern varies with COPD severity is unknown. Here we characterize the activation and differentiation status of circulating monocytes in patients with moderate vs. severe COPD.

Methods: Blood monocytes were isolated from normal non-smokers (14), current smokers (13), patients with moderate (9), and severe COPD (11). These cells were subjected to analysis by flow cytometry to characterize the expression of activation markers, chemoattractant receptors, and surface markers characteristic of either M1- or M2-type macrophages.

Results: Patients with severe COPD had increased numbers of total circulating monocytes and non-classical patrolling monocytes, compared to normal subjects and patients with moderate COPD. In addition, while the percentage of circulating monocytes that expressed an M2-like phenotype was reduced in patients with either moderate or severe disease, the levels of expression of M2 markers on this subpopulation of monocytes in severe COPD was significantly elevated. This was particularly evident for the expression of the chemoattractant receptor CCR5.

Conclusions: Blood monocytes in severe COPD patients undergo unexpected pre-differentiation that is largely characteristic of M2-macrophage polarization, leading to the emergence of an unusual M2-like monocyte population with very high levels of CCR5. These results show that circulating monocytes in patients with severe COPD possess a cellular phenotype which may permit greater mobilization to the lung, with a pre-existing bias toward a potentially destructive inflammatory phenotype.

Keywords: COPD; Monocyte activation; Polarization; Systemic inflammation.

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Female
  • Flow Cytometry
  • Humans
  • Linear Models
  • Macrophage Activation*
  • Macrophages / cytology*
  • Macrophages, Alveolar / cytology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Monocytes / cytology*
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / blood
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / immunology*
  • Receptors, CCR5 / metabolism
  • Smoking / blood


  • Biomarkers
  • Receptors, CCR5