SUNDAY, May 15 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Researchers say they've found a new way to predict how chronic obstructive pulmonary disease will progress, a discovery they believe could improve COPD treatment.
Their research might help doctors determine which patients are less likely to respond to standard treatment and are at higher risk for disease advancement, the study authors explained.
COPD -- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease -- is a chronic lung disease that makes it tough to breathe. It includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, according to the American Lung Association.
The new discovery concerns something called neutrophilic airway inflammation, which is associated with COPD. Neutrophils are white blood cells that are important for fighting infection.
Scientists said that a type of neutrophil behavior called neutrophil extracellular trap (NET) formation in the lungs of COPD patients appears to reduce their ability to destroy bacteria.
"We have known for many years that neutrophils should be able to fight infection, but we haven't fully understood why they don't work in COPD," said study author Dr. James Chalmers, from the University of Dundee in Scotland.
"Some recent studies described the presence of NETs in the COPD lung, so we wanted to know whether there was any relationship between NETs and outcomes in COPD patients," he said in a news release from the American Thoracic Society.
For the study, the researchers collected blood and sputum samples from 141 patients at the end of acute COPD flare-ups.
The researchers found the amount of NET formations in participants' lungs was directly related to the severity of their lung disease and their risk for COPD flare-ups that didn't respond to treatment with corticosteroids.
NETs result in more infections as well as worse lung function and quality of life, the study authors concluded.
"This marker may help us identify patients at higher risk of disease progression," said Chalmers. "And it identifies a subset of patients who may need treatments other than corticosteroids. Our data show that inhaled steroids may even exacerbate NETs, so we need to identify new COPD treatments and discover whether inhibiting NET formation will result in improved clinical outcomes for patients with COPD."
The researchers plan to continue their investigation, examining why NET formation occurs and whether it can be prevented or treated.
"While our new research is at an early stage, we hope that detecting NETs may be a biomarker that can identify patients at risk of deterioration, and that we can work toward testing whether inhibiting NET formation would be a beneficial treatment in COPD," Chalmers said.
The findings were to be presented Sunday at the American Thoracic Society's annual meeting, in San Francisco. Research presented at meetings usually is regarded as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
The American Lung Association provides more information on COPD.