Genetic Adaptation and Acquisition of Macrolide Resistance in Haemophilus spp. during Persistent Respiratory Tract Colonization in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Patients Receiving Long-Term Azithromycin Treatment

Microbiol Spectr. 2023 Feb 14;11(1):e0386022. doi: 10.1128/spectrum.03860-22. Epub 2022 Dec 8.


Patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) benefit from the immunomodulatory effect of azithromycin, but long-term administration may alter colonizing bacteria. Our goal was to identify changes in Haemophilus influenzae and Haemophilus parainfluenzae during azithromycin treatment. Fifteen patients were followed while receiving prolonged azithromycin treatment (Hospital Universitari de Bellvitge, Spain). Four patients (P02, P08, P11, and P13) were persistently colonized by H. influenzae for at least 3 months and two (P04 and P11) by H. parainfluenzae. Isolates from these patients (53 H. influenzae and 18 H. parainfluenzae) were included to identify, by whole-genome sequencing, antimicrobial resistance changes and genetic variation accumulated during persistent colonization. All persistent lineages isolated before treatment were azithromycin-susceptible but developed resistance within the first months, apart from those belonging to P02, who discontinued the treatment. H. influenzae isolates from P08-ST107 acquired mutations in 23S rRNA, and those from P11-ST2480 and P13-ST165 had changes in L4 and L22. In H. parainfluenzae, P04 persistent isolates acquired changes in rlmC, and P11 carried genes encoding MefE/MsrD efflux pumps in an integrative conjugative element, which was also identified in H. influenzae P11-ST147. Other genetic variation occurred in genes associated with cell wall and inorganic ion metabolism. Persistent H. influenzae strains all showed changes in licA and hgpB genes. Other genes (lex1, lic3A, hgpC, and fadL) had variation in multiple lineages. Furthermore, persistent strains showed loss, acquisition, or genetic changes in prophage-associated regions. Long-term azithromycin therapy results in macrolide resistance, as well as genetic changes that likely favor bacterial adaptation during persistent respiratory colonization. IMPORTANCE The immunomodulatory properties of azithromycin reduce the frequency of exacerbations and improve the quality of life of COPD patients. However, long-term administration may alter the respiratory microbiota, such as Haemophilus influenzae, an opportunistic respiratory colonizing bacteria that play an important role in exacerbations. This study contributes to a better understanding of COPD progression by characterizing the clinical evolution of H. influenzae in a cohort of patients with prolonged azithromycin treatment. The emergence of macrolide resistance during the first months, combined with the role of Haemophilus parainfluenzae as a reservoir and source of resistance dissemination, is a cause for concern that may lead to therapeutic failure. Furthermore, genetic variations in cell wall and inorganic ion metabolism coding genes likely favor bacterial adaptation to host selective pressures. Therefore, the bacterial pathoadaptive evolution in these severe COPD patients raise our awareness of the possible spread of macrolide resistance and selection of host-adapted clones.

Keywords: Haemophilus influenzae; Haemophilus parainfluenzae; adaptation; azithromycin; macrolide resistance; persistence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use
  • Azithromycin / pharmacology
  • Azithromycin / therapeutic use
  • Drug Resistance, Bacterial / genetics
  • Haemophilus / genetics
  • Haemophilus Infections* / drug therapy
  • Haemophilus Infections* / microbiology
  • Haemophilus influenzae
  • Humans
  • Macrolides / pharmacology
  • Macrolides / therapeutic use
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive* / drug therapy
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive* / microbiology
  • Quality of Life
  • Respiratory System


  • Azithromycin
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Macrolides