Gut microbiome link to deadly lung disease

Research led by the Centenary Institute, the University of Technology Sydney, the University of Queensland, the University of Newcastle and the Hunter Medical Research Institute showed for the first time a link between chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an often fatal lung condition, and the gut microbiome.

The findings, published in the high impact science journal ‘Nature Communications’, suggested that the gut may be helpful in diagnosing COPD and may also be a potential source of new therapeutic targets to help treat the chronic respiratory disorder.

COPD is a devastating lung disease

COPD, also colloquially known as emphysema, is a lung disease where airflow is blocked making it difficult to breathe. It’s the fifth commonest cause of death in Australia, third commonest in the world and there are essentially no effective treatments. More than three million lives are lost every year to COPD globally. It has an enormous socioeconomic burden worldwide.

“It is already known that the lung microbiome (all of the microbes and bacteria that exist in the lung) is a contributing factor in COPD,” said Professor Phil Hansbro, senior author of the study and Director of the Centenary UTS Centre for Inflammation.

Professor Hansbro from the Centenary Institute

“We wanted to see if the gut environment is involved–to determine whether the gut can act as a reliable indicator of COPD or if it was connected to the development of the disease.”

COPD linked with the gut

In the study, researchers compared the microbiome and metabolite profiles of stool samples from COPD patients with healthy individuals. Revealed were significant differences between the two groups.

COPD patients exhibited increased levels of the bacteria Streptococcus and Lachnospiraceae in their stool samples. Also identified in individuals with COPD was a unique metabolite signature–formed by the chemical by-products of the metabolic processes of bacteria.

“Our research indicates that the gut of COPD patients is notably different from healthy individuals,” said the paper’s first author, Dr Kate Bowerman of the University of Queensland.

“This suggests that stool sampling and analysis could be used to non-invasively diagnose and monitor for COPD,” she said.

A new way to treat COPD?

The study’s researchers believe that the altered gut microbiome found in COPD patients also show that the gut is 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 this lung disease.”

Professor Hansbro

Joint first author on the paper, Ms Saima Rehman, researcher at the University of Newcastle added that manipulation of the microbiome to treat COPD had not been investigated to date and had been only poorly studied in other respiratory diseases.

“Modification of the microbiome to help treat COPD could involve faecal or microbial transfer, selective antibiotics and/or probiotics and their metabolic products, or by selectively modifying the diet, which effectively control other diseases,” said Ms Rehman.