Recent research from National Jewish Health has found that the Mycoplasma pneumoniae (Mp) infection may be to blame for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in many smokers.

“Although smoking is the overwhelming cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, only 20% of smokers develop the disease. Our findings suggest that Mycoplasma pneumoniae infection may be one of the co-factors that lead to COPD and other diseases among smokers,” says senior author Brian Day, a professor of medicine at National Jewish Health.

Tobacco smoke generates nearly 100 trillion reactive molecules, called reactive species, per puff. Reactive species can damage lung tissue by chemically reacting with DNA, cell membranes, and other molecules in the lung.

During the study, researchers found that mice exposed to tobacco smoke for 16 weeks doubled the amount of the antioxidant glutathione in the fluid of the airways. Glutathione reacts with the reactive species in tobacco smoke, which prevents damaging reactions with lung tissue. “This natural, protective response actually allows people to smoke,” says Day.

“The Mycoplasma infection blocked the lungs’ protective response to tobacco smoke by lowering levels of the enzyme that normally recycles oxidized glutathione back into its protective, reduced form. This resulted in severe oxidative stress and increased tissue damage as measure by oxidized DNA,” says Day. “These higher levels of oxidative stress and damage are likely to predispose smokers with Mycoplasma infection to lung disease, such as COPD or cancer.”