Background: Multiple gene expression studies have been performed separately in peripheral blood, lung, and airway tissues to study COPD. We performed RNA-sequencing gene expression profiling of large-airway epithelium, alveolar macrophage and peripheral blood samples from the same subset of COPD cases and controls from the COPDGene study who underwent bronchoscopy at a single center. Using statistical and gene set enrichment approaches, we sought to improve the understanding of COPD by studying gene sets and pathways across these tissues, beyond the individual genomic determinants.
Methods: We performed differential expression analysis using RNA-seq data obtained from 63 samples from 21 COPD cases and controls (includes four non-smokers) via the R package DESeq2. We tested associations between gene expression and variables related to lung function, smoking history, and CT scan measures of emphysema and airway disease. We examined the correlation of differential gene expression across the tissues and phenotypes, hypothesizing that this would reveal preserved and private gene expression signatures. We performed gene set enrichment analyses using curated databases and findings from prior COPD studies to provide biological and disease relevance.
Results: The known smoking-related genes CYP1B1 and AHRR were among the top differential expression results for smoking status in the large-airway epithelium data. We observed a significant overlap of genes primarily across large-airway and macrophage results for smoking and airway disease phenotypes. We did not observe specific genes differentially expressed in all three tissues for any of the phenotypes. However, we did observe hemostasis and immune signaling pathways in the overlaps across all three tissues for emphysema, and amyloid and telomere-related pathways for smoking. In peripheral blood, the emphysema results were enriched for B cell related genes previously identified in lung tissue studies.
Conclusions: Our integrative analyses across COPD-relevant tissues and prior studies revealed shared and tissue-specific disease biology. These replicated and novel findings in the airway and peripheral blood have highlighted candidate genes and pathways for COPD pathogenesis.
Keywords: COPD; Emphysema; Genomics; RNA-seq; Transcriptomics.