First published October 1, 2019 - More info
The acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is an inflammatory lung disorder that frequently complicates critical illness, and most commonly occurs in the setting of sepsis. Although a number of clinical and environmental risk factors for ARDS have been described, not all patients with risk factors develop the syndrome, raising the possibility of genetic underpinnings for ARDS susceptibility. We have previously reported that circulating cell-free hemoglobin (CFH) is elevated during sepsis, and higher levels are associated with worse outcomes. CFH is rapidly scavenged by the plasma protein haptoglobin (Hp). A common HP genetic variant HP2 is unique to humans and represents 60% of the HP allele frequency in populations of European ancestry. The HP2 gene product has reduced ability to inhibit CFH-mediated inflammation and oxidative stress compared to the alternative HP1. We hypothesized that the HP2 variant increases ARDS susceptibility during sepsis when plasma CFH levels are elevated. In a murine model of sepsis with elevated CFH levels, transgenic mice homozygous for Hp2 had increased lung inflammation, pulmonary vascular permeability, lung apoptosis, and mortality compared to mice homozygous for the alternative allele Hp1. We then tested the clinical relevance of our findings in a prospective observational cohort study of 496 septic critically ill adults, and found that the HP2 variant was significantly associated with increased ARDS susceptibility (odds ratio 1.41 per HP2 allele, 95% confidence interval 1.06 – 1.88, P = 0.018) after controlling for clinical risk factors and plasma CFH. This relationship between the HP2 genetic variant and ARDS risk was only seen in patients with elevated plasma CFH levels. These observations identify the HP2 variant as a novel genetic ARDS risk factor during sepsis, and may have important implications in the study and treatment of ARDS.