Despite decades of research, and the growing healthcare and societal burden of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), therapeutic COPD breakthroughs have not occurred. Sub-optimal COPD patient phenotyping, an incomplete understanding of COPD pathogenesis and a scarcity of sensitive tools that provide patient-relevant intermediate endpoints likely all play a role in the lack of new, efficacious COPD interventions. In other words, COPD patients are still diagnosed based on the presence of persistent airflow limitation measured using spirometry. Spirometry measurements reflect the global sum of all the different possible COPD pathologies and perhaps because of this, we lose sight of the different contributions of airway and parenchymal abnormalities. With recent advances in thoracic X-ray computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), lung structure and function abnormalities may be regionally identified and measured. These imaging endpoints may serve as biomarkers of COPD that can be used to better phenotype patients. Therefore, here we review novel CT and MRI measurements that help reveal COPD phenotypes and what COPD really ‘looks’ like, beyond spirometric indices. We discuss MR and CT imaging approaches for generating reproducible and sensitive measurements of COPD phenotypes related to pulmonary ventilation and perfusion as well as airway and parenchyma anatomical and morphological features. These measurements may provide a way to advance the development and testing of new COPD interventions and therapies.
The two images illustrate the spatial relationship between 3He MRI ventilation defects and CT of a subject with airways disease dominant COPD. The right image shows co-registration of 3He MRI static ventilation (blue) and CT (greyscale) with airway rendering (yellow).