Sickly Sweet

Our latest paper looks at the inter-relation between airway glucose levels in COPD and infection.

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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) describes a

group of lung conditions that make it hard to breath. The major cause of COPD is

smoking. Nearly 1.2 million people in the UK suffer with COPD, costing the NHS

more than £800 million a year. Bacterial lung infections are particularly common

in COPD patients. There are a number of reasons that COPD patients are more

susceptible to infection but most research has focussed on failures of the

immune system. We propose an alternative mechanism in our latest paper in the

Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (JACI).

Bacteria, like all living things, need food to grow. The

bacteria that infect us are no exception to this and their food source is us!

The airways are surprisingly rich in nutrients for bacterial growth, some of

this comes from the food we eat (micro-inhalation) and some leaks out from the

blood or cells lining the airways. In healthy lungs, glucose is actively pumped

out of the lungs maintaining it at a low level, but in damaged lungs the flow

of sugar into the lungs exceeds the amount of sugar that can be pumped back out.

Using model systems we have linked this increased lung glucose to increasedlung infection.

We think that this works a little like leaving a jam jar open – bacteria can colonise and grow on the available sugar.

We have now extended these results to patients with COPD. We

measured glucose in samples from COPD patients and found that airway glucose was

higher compared to individuals without COPD. Moreover when COPD patients had an

acute viral infection of the lungs (called an exacerbation) the glucose

concentrations were even higher, probably because the virus further damages the

lung. There was also a direct relationship between the amount of glucose and

the amount of bacteria in the COPD patient samples. We think that

mechanistically, the glucose is elevated because of lung inflammation –

essentially COPD lungs are more leaky, the glucose moves from the blood into

the airways with an impact on bacterial growth.

Why is this important?

Antibiotics are commonly used to treat infections in COPD,

contributing to the rise in antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistant

bacteria (bacteria that are not killed by antibiotics) are a crisis in global

health. If antibiotics stop working, as well as an increase in the severity of

infections that are treatable, much of the medical advances of the last 50

years including surgery and transplants also become ineffective. We therefore

need new ways of killing bacteria. Demonstrating that bacteria are need the

sugar in the airways to grow opens up a new line of attack, cut off the

bacteria’s source of sugar. Potentially this would prevent bacterial infections

in the first place, circumventing the need for antibiotics.

John Tregoning

Author: Infectious. Reader in Respiratory Infections., Imperial College London

Author: Infectious

I have studied the immune responses to vaccination and respiratory infection for 15 years and have been an independent PI for 10 years. My group’s research program is focussed on prevention of respiratory infections.