Mucus plugs in patients with asthma linked to eosinophilia and airflow obstruction

The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) Severe Asthma Research Program (SARP)

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

338 Scopus citations


Background. The link between mucus plugs and airflow obstruction has not been established in chronic severe asthma, and the role of eosinophils and their products in mucus plug formation is unknown. Methods. In clinical studies, we developed and applied a bronchopulmonary segment-based scoring system to quantify mucus plugs on multidetector computed tomography (MDCT) lung scans from 146 subjects with asthma and 22 controls, and analyzed relationships among mucus plug scores, forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1), and airway eosinophils. Additionally, we used airway mucus gel models to explore whether oxidants generated by eosinophil peroxidase (EPO) oxidize cysteine thiol groups to promote mucus plug formation. Results. Mucus plugs occurred in at least 1 of 20 lung segments in 58% of subjects with asthma and in only 4.5% of controls, and the plugs in subjects with asthma persisted in the same segment for years. A high mucus score (plugs in ≥ 4 segments) occurred in 67% of subjects with asthma with FEV1 of less than 60% of predicted volume, 19% with FEV1 of 60%-80%, and 6% with FEV1 greater than 80% (P < 0.001) and was associated with marked increases in sputum eosinophils and EPO. EPO catalyzed oxidation of thiocyanate and bromide by H2O2 to generate oxidants that crosslink cysteine thiol groups and stiffen thiolated hydrogels. Conclusion. Mucus plugs are a plausible mechanism of chronic airflow obstruction in severe asthma, and EPO-generated oxidants may mediate mucus plug formation. We propose an approach for quantifying airway mucus plugging using MDCT lung scans and suggest that treating mucus plugs may improve airflow in chronic severe asthma.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)997-1009
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Clinical Investigation
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Medicine


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