Multi-omics links IL-6 trans-signalling with neutrophil extracellular trap formation and Haemophilus infection in COPD

Eur Respir J. 2021 Oct 14;58(4):2003312. doi: 10.1183/13993003.03312-2020. Print 2021 Oct.


Background: Interleukin (IL)-6 trans-signalling (IL-6TS) is emerging as a pathogenic mechanism in chronic respiratory diseases; however, the drivers of IL-6TS in the airways and the phenotypic characteristic of patients with increased IL-6TS pathway activation remain poorly understood.

Objective: Our aim was to identify and characterise COPD patients with increased airway IL-6TS and to elucidate the biological drivers of IL-6TS pathway activation.

Methods: We used an IL-6TS-specific sputum biomarker profile (soluble IL-6 receptor (sIL-6R), IL-6, IL-1β, IL-8, macrophage inflammatory protein-1β) to stratify sputum data from patients with COPD (n=74; Biomarkers to Target Antibiotic and Systemic Corticosteroid Therapy in COPD Exacerbation (BEAT-COPD)) by hierarchical clustering. The IL-6TS signature was related to clinical characteristics and sputum microbiome profiles. The induction of neutrophil extracellular trap formation (NETosis) and IL-6TS by Haemophilus influenzae were studied in human neutrophils.

Results: Hierarchical clustering revealed an IL-6TS-high subset (n=24) of COPD patients, who shared phenotypic traits with an IL-6TS-high subset previously identified in asthma. The subset was characterised by increased sputum cell counts (p=0.0001), persistent sputum neutrophilia (p=0.0004), reduced quality of life (Chronic Respiratory Questionnaire total score; p=0.008), and increased levels of pro-inflammatory mediators and matrix metalloproteinases in sputum. IL-6TS-high COPD patients showed an increase in Proteobacteria, with Haemophilus as the dominating genus. NETosis induced by H. influenzae was identified as a potential mechanism for increased sIL-6R levels. This was supported by a significant positive correlation between sIL-6R and NETosis markers in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid from COPD patients.

Conclusion: IL-6TS pathway activation due to chronic colonisation with Haemophilus may be an important disease driver in a subset of COPD patients.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Extracellular Traps*
  • Haemophilus Infections* / complications
  • Humans
  • Interleukin-6
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive*
  • Quality of Life
  • Sputum


  • Interleukin-6