A new study by University at Buffalo researchers offers insight into the formidable bacterial adversary that afflicts individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the fourth-leading cause of death.
The bacterium is known as Haemophilus influenzae – spelled somewhat like the virus that causes the flu but a different pathogen. It colonizes in the airways of COPD patients, making their condition worse and accelerating their decline.
Now, a study that also included scientists from Yale University and the University of Maryland provides important clues to how the bacterium lives and adapts inside the airways despite the body's efforts to eradicate it. It's hoped the findings, which relied on collecting bacterial specimens from patients over 15 years, will help lead to an effective treatment or vaccine.
Studies of this pathogen up until now have been looking at strains grown in labs or stored in freezers. The power of this study is that it collected 269 strains of Haemophilus influenza over time, and the researchers could see how the pathogen changed its genetic makeup - in some cases to become more lethal and survive in human airways.
"We can use this information to target strains that don't change as much," said Dr. Timothy Murphy, senior associate dean for clinical and translational research in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Murphy, also senior author of the paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said the genetic changes are key to finding the pathogen’s vulnerabilities.
"Not only were we able to look at what the genes looked like when the patients acquired the pathogen, but we followed these patients every month,” Murphy said. “The genomes are like a looking glass, revealing the pathogen’s secrets to us by showing us how it changed its genes through the years."
A key finding: Haemophilus influenzae turns genes on and off, constantly changing which genes are activated based on the environment in the airway.
COPD is an umbrella term for such progressive lung diseases as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. More than 15 million Americans report being diagnosed with the condition, which causes about 134,000 deaths a year.
Funding for the study came from the the National Institutes of Health, Department of Veterans Affairs, and a clinical and translational science award grant to UB.