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Potentially lethal chronic coughing disease could be caused by malfunctioning immune cells

Posted June 29, 2018

Chronic coughing disease is exactly what it sounds – it causes persistent coughing. Although it may sound like a mare inconvenience, this condition is actually a life-threatening lung disease. It is very difficult to treat the chronic coughing disease and most of current therapies are only focusing on symptoms. Now scientists from University of Edinburgh have discovered how the disease impairs key cells of the immune system, which may lead to new therapies.

Chronic coughing is one of the most noticeable symptoms of bronchiectasis. Image credit: U.S. Air Force photo, Rae Perry / Public Domain

Scientists decided to focus on immune system – on cells called neutrophils, which are the first line of defence against infections.  They invited 18 patients with bronchiectasis, eight healthy volunteers and six pneumonia patients with no background lung disease to participate in the research. People with the chronic coughing disease, also known as bronchiectasis, have an excess of neutrophils in their airways compared with healthy people. This made the neutrophils the natural target for this research. In healthy people, inflammation actually serves a purpose – it helps clearing out the infection. However, it doesn’t work like that in people with bronchiectasis – this disease is pretty much associated with a vicious cycle of bacterial infection and inflammation in the airways and lungs, which do not clear away.

Because inflammation is not clearing out the infection, it gets stronger. In fact, inflammation can get so bad that people with bronchiectasis can experience damaged airways, which could lead to even more severe infections and even death. But why does that happen? Scientists found that neutrophils in people with bronchiectasis behave differently than in healthy people – they are more active, live longer and have altered functions.

Despite being more active, neutrophils in bronchiectasis patients are unable to kill off the bacteria as effectively as in healthy people. Situation becomes even worse as a new infection sets in and the health of the patient steadily declines. Dr Pallavi Bedi, one of the authors of the study, said: “This study has identified that the key cells in bronchiectasis – the neutrophils – are reprogrammed and do not function as they normally should do. This should now help us to develop more targeted, non-antibiotic therapies in bronchiectasis”.

Around one in 1000 people in the UK are affected by bronchiectasis. Usually the disease is not too dangerous, but sometimes it can be life-threatening. Patients struggle to breathe, cough all the time, suffer from excessive phlegm production. While there is no effective treatment at the moment, scientists are hoping that they are moving closer to effective solutions.


Source: University of Edinburgh

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