Small Airways Dimensions in Asthma and in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

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Abstract

The purpose of this study was to compare the dimensions of the peripheral airways in fatal asthma with those from patients with nonfatal asthma, mild COPD, and normal lung function. Lung specimens from eight individuals who had fatal asthmatic attacks were obtained at postmortem and compared with similar specimens from three asthmatic patients who died of an unrelated cause and four specimens obtained from known asthmatic patients who required lung resection for tumor. These 15 asthmatic lungs were also compared with lungs resected for peripheral neoplasms from 15 patients with normal airway function (FEV1, % of predicted > 85) and 15 patients with mild chronic airflow obstruction (FEV1, % of predicted < 85). All membranous airways with a long-short diameter ratio of 3:1 or less were examined. The smooth muscle and the tissue areas external and internal to the muscle layer were traced using a Bioquant® BQ System 4. The same system was used to evaluate the fraction of the submucosa and adventitia taken up by blood vessels. The adventitial, submucosal, and muscle area of the asthmatic airways were greater than those of COPD and control (p < 0.01), and the muscle area was greater in COPD than in control lungs (p < 0.05). These parameters were also greater in the 8 patients with fatal asthma compared with the 7 patients with nonfatal asthma (p < 0.05). The proportion of the submucosa taken up by vessels was increased in the airways of patients with asthma compared with those with COPD or control subjects (p < 0.01) and greater in the airways of patients with fatal compared with nonfatal asthma (p < 0.01). We conclude that the membranous airways show a gradation in wall thickening7#x2014;fatal asthma > nonfatal asthma > COPD > control— and that an increase in submucosal vascular volume may contribute to a reduction in airway caliber in fatal asthma.

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