BACKGROUND Information about the size, airway location, and longitudinal behavior of mucus plugs in asthma is needed to understand their role in mechanisms of airflow obstruction and to rationally design muco-active treatments.METHODS CT lung scans from 57 patients with asthma were analyzed to quantify mucus plug size and airway location, and paired CT scans obtained 3 years apart were analyzed to determine plug behavior over time. Radiologist annotations of mucus plugs were incorporated in an image-processing pipeline to generate size and location information that was related to measures of airflow.RESULTS The length distribution of 778 annotated mucus plugs was multimodal, and a 12 mm length defined short (“stubby”, ≤12 mm) and long (“stringy”, >12 mm) plug phenotypes. High mucus plug burden was disproportionately attributable to stringy mucus plugs. Mucus plugs localized predominantly to airway generations 6–9, and 47% of plugs in baseline scans persisted in the same airway for 3 years and fluctuated in length and volume. Mucus plugs in larger proximal generations had greater effects on spirometry measures than plugs in smaller distal generations, and a model of airflow that estimates the increased airway resistance attributable to plugs predicted a greater effect for proximal generations and more numerous mucus plugs.CONCLUSION Persistent mucus plugs in proximal airway generations occur in asthma and demonstrate a stochastic process of formation and resolution over time. Proximal airway mucus plugs are consequential for airflow and are in locations amenable to treatment by inhaled muco-active drugs or bronchoscopy.TRIAL REGISTRATION Clinicaltrials.gov; NCT01718197, NCT01606826, NCT01750411, NCT01761058, NCT01761630, NCT01716494, and NCT01760915.FUNDING AstraZeneca, Boehringer-Ingelheim, Genentech, GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi–Genzyme–Regeneron, and TEVA provided financial support for study activities at the Coordinating and Clinical Centers beyond the third year of patient follow-up. These companies had no role in study design or data analysis, and the only restriction on the funds was that they be used to support the SARP initiative.
Brendan K. Huang, Brett M. Elicker, Travis S. Henry, Kimberly G. Kallianos, Lewis D. Hahn, Monica Tang, Franklin Heng, Charles E. McCulloch, Nirav R. Bhakta, Sharmila Majumdar, Jiwoong Choi, Loren C. Denlinger, Sean B. Fain, Annette T. Hastie, Eric A. Hoffman, Elliot Israel, Nizar N. Jarjour, Bruce D. Levy, Dave T. Mauger, Kaharu Sumino, Sally E. Wenzel, Mario Castro, Prescott G. Woodruff, John V. Fahy, for the NHLBI Severe Asthma Research Program (SARP)