Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, refers to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems. It includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. According to the CDC, over 16 million Americans are living with COPD. It is the third most common cause of death globally.
In the United States, tobacco smoke is the key factor in the development and progression of COPD. Exposure to air pollutants in the home and workplace, genetic factors, and respiratory infections, also play a role. In the developing world, indoor air quality is thought to play a larger role than it does in the United States. Now, researchers at Centenary Institute, the University of Technology, Sydney, and the University of Queensland in Australia, report they have discovered a link between COPD and the gut microbiome.
Their findings, “Disease-associated gut microbiome and metabolome changes in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” were published in Nature Communications.
“We wanted to see if the gut environment was also somehow involved to determine whether the gut could act as a reliable indicator of COPD or if it was connected in some way to the development of the disease,” explained Phil Hansbro, professor, senior author of the study, and director of the Centenary UTS Centre for Inflammation
The researchers compared the microbiome and metabolite profiles of stool samples from COPD patients with healthy individuals.
“Here we examine the fecal microbiome and metabolome of COPD patients and healthy controls, finding 146 bacterial species differing between the two groups. Several species, including Streptococcus sp000187445, Streptococcus vestibularis, and multiple members of the family Lachnospiraceae, also correlate with reduced lung function,” noted the researchers.
They also identified a unique metabolite signature formed by the chemical by-products of the metabolic process in individuals with COPD.
“Our research indicates that the gut of COPD patients is notably different from healthy individuals,” explained first author, Kate Bowerman, PhD, a research fellow, University of Queensland. “This suggests that stool sampling and analysis could be used to non-invasively diagnose and monitor for COPD,” she said.
Their findings suggest that the altered gut microbiome found in COPD patients could also support the gut as a potential target for new treatments.
“The ‘gut-lung axis’ describes the common immune system of the lung and gastrointestinal tract. This means that activity in the gut can impact activity in the lung. Our COPD findings suggest that the gut microbiome should now also be considered when looking for new therapeutic targets to help treat lung disease,” added Hansbro.
Their findings may even provide insights for COVID-19, as those with COPD are at increased risk of severe illness from the virus.