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Lung Research

COPD – changes in the lungs, changes in the microbiome

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can result in structural changes within the lungs over time. Scientists at the Helmholtz Zentrum München have now been able to show that these changes not only affect the organ itself, but also the bacteria that live in the lung. The results have been published in ‘PLOS ONE’.

Microbiome of the Lung

© Fotolia/Sebastian Kaulitzki (modified)

Coughing, breathing difficulties, and strong mucous production in the lungs are typical symptoms of COPD. The disease is often triggered by smoking, and, according to estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO), it could become the world’s third most common cause of death in 2030. “COPD has various subtypes that, for example, can be verified by use of quantitative computer tomography (qCT)*,” explains PD Dr. Wolfgang zu Castell, head of the Research Unit Scientific Computing (ASC) at the Helmholtz Zentrum München. “We wanted to investigate if the microbiome in the lungs changes in a way that depends on these subtypes,” adds Prof. Dr. Michael Schloter, head of the Research Unit for Comparative Microbiome Analyses (COMI) at the Helmholtz Zentrum München.

Microbiome and CT scans analyzed

For this purpose, scientists from the two research units examined samples gathered from nine healthy individuals and 16 COPD patients. They were all participants of a Europe-wide population study (EvA Consortium; Emphysema versus Airways Disease). On the one hand, CT scans were used to analyze the lungs and assign the patients to the respective COPD subtypes. On the other hand, the scientists used brush samples from lungs to determine the composition of the lung microbiome using certain marker genes.

“This allowed us to show that the composition of the bacterial community in the lungs of COPD patients without structural changes is very similar to that of healthy subjects,” explains Dr. Marion Engel, scientist in the Complex Systems Research Group in the ASC and the study’s first author. “On the other hand, the bacterial composition in the lungs of ill subjects with structural changes differ significantly from those of the other two groups, regardless of the severity of the disease.”

Streptococci suspected

According to the study, Streptococci are often found in structurally altered lungs. This genus includes many pathogenic representatives that are also often detected in the presence of exacerbations**. In the lungs of healthy subjects, on the other hand, there was an increased presence of the genus Prevotella, to which a number of probiotic characteristics have also been attributed.

Taken together, these findings indicate that for certain subtypes of COPD, changes occur in the bacterial communities in the lungs that can promote an increase of potentially pathogenic bacteria. With regards to personalized medicine, it would therefore be expedient also to keep an eye on the microbiome, for instance when considering whether or not antibiotics or glucocorticoids should be administered in the event of a particular COPD subtype.

You can find a graphical abstract here!

Further Information

* Unlike conventional computer tomography (CT), quantitative (q) methods analyze the physical density with great precision.
** Exacerbations denote a (mostly non-linear) progression of the symptoms

The presence of bacteria in the lungs is absolutely normal. It was also previously known that the composition of the bacterial communities in the lungs are changed in people with progressive COPD and that pathogenic bacteria and viruses can exacerbate the state of health, according to the authors. What is primarily new here is that structural changes in COPD patient lungs that can be detected with CT are associated with the composition of the lung microbiome, but not with the severity of the disease.

Original Publication:
Engel, M. et al. (2017): Influence of Lung CT Changes in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) on the Human Lung Microbiome. PLOS ONE, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0180859

As German Research Center for Environmental Health, Helmholtz Zentrum München pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches for the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes mellitus and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München has about 2,300 staff members and is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich. Helmholtz Zentrum München is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 18 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 37,000 staff members. 

Die Abteilung Scientific Computing (ASC) verwaltet die zentrale Datenverarbeitung am Helmholtz Zentrum München und organisiert die professionelle ICT-Unterstützung. Darüber hinaus obliegt dem Institut der Forschungsbereich Scientific Computing, wissenschaftliches Rechnen, bei dem mathematische Methoden für numerische Analysen und Simulationen in biologischen Modellen entwickelt und angewandt werden.

Die Abteilung für Vergleichende Mikrobiomanalysen (COMI) untersucht elementare Prinzipien der Entwicklung von Mikrobiomen und deren Funktionen in unterschiedlichen Wirten. Ein besonderer Fokus liegt hierbei auf der Erforschung von Netzwerkstrukturen und deren Rolle für Resilienz gegenüber Stressoren und sich verändernden Bedingungen. Ziel ist es generelle Mechanismen der Strukturbildung von Mikrobiomen zu identifizieren, die unabhängig vom jeweiligen Wirt beziehungsweise Umwelt ablaufen. Basierend auf den Ergebnissen sollen Möglichleiten der Stabilisierung von Mikrobiomen erarbeitet werden, die dann unmittelbaren Einfluss auf die Gesundheit der jeweiligen Wirte haben. Mit diesem Forschungsansatz steht die Abteilung an der Schnittstelle zwischen die Forschungsfelder „Umwelt“ und „menschliche Gesundheit“ am Helmholtz Zentrum München.