The bacterium non-typeable Haemophilus influenzae (NTHI) may be a key factor in the hallmark signs of COPD: airway inflammation and impaired pulmonary function, according to researchers from the University of Buffalo.

While NTHI frequently exists in healthy humans without causing any problems, it seems to proliferate and flourish in the lower respiratory airways of patients with COPD, UB researchers said.

“In healthy people, H. influenzae is present in the throat but not in the lower airways of the respiratory tract,” said Timothy Murphy, MD, SUNY Distinguished Professor and UB senior associate dean for clinical and translational research in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and the principal investigator on the grant.

“People with COPD, however, have diseased airways which impairs the normal protective responses. Thus H. influenzae is present in the lower airways of people with COPD. It is also the most important bacterial cause of exacerbations or the worsening of COPD symptoms, and can lead to serious complications.”

Murphy and other researchers at the University at Buffalo were awarded a $2,287,587 five-year National Institutes of Health grant to study and detail the mechanisms that allow NTHI to infect and survive in the airways of adults with COPD, according to a press release from the university.

The research may lead to new drugs that can effectively reduce NTHI infections and save lives. The three goals of the research are:

  • To study how NTHI is able to persist from months to years in airways;
  • To assess potential vaccine antigens that are under development; and
  • To assess how NTHI can survive repeated courses of antibiotic therapy.

The study will use a Hollow Fiber Infection Model to expose NTHI to levels of antibiotics at the exact levels that occur in COPD patients. These results will be integrated with those of genome analysis for a better understanding of antibiotic resistance and tolerance, according to UB researchers.

“I am trying to understand the mechanisms by which H. influenzae causes infection so that these observations can be used to develop better treatments. This is an excellent example of translational research,” said Murphy, who noted that, in the last 50 years, there has been little progress in developing new treatments and prevention of infections in COPD, other than the development of antibiotics.