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 millions Americans are living with COPD.

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 discovered a link between chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and the gut microbiome.

Their findings “Disease-associated gut microbiome and metabolome changes in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease” are 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 faecal 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, University of Queensland. “This suggests that stool sampling and analysis could be used to non-invasively diagnose and monitor for COPD,” she said.

The study’s researchers believe 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,” said Professor Hansbro.

COPD, a life threatening inflammatory disorder of the lungs, is the third most common cause of death globally. More than 3 million lives are lost every year to COPD.

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