How does azithromycin (AZ) benefit patients with severe COPD or cystic fibrosis (CF)?

AZ is a macrolide antibiotic which interferes with bacterial protein synthesis by binding to the 50S ribosomal subunit. It is often used to treat acute respiratory tract infections due to Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, Moraxella catarrhalis, as well as Mycoplasma, Chlamydia, and Legionella sp1. Although it has no in vitro activity against many aerobic gram-negative bacilli such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, its chronic use has often been associated with a significant reduction in the frequency of disease exacerbations in patients with chronic bronchiectasis and colonization due to this organism, including patients with COPD or CF1-3.

Because P. aeruginosa is invariably macrolide-resistant, the beneficial effect of AZ in chronically infected or colonized patients must be due to factors other than its direct effect on bacterial replication.  Several mechanisms have been invoked including: 1. Inhibition of quorum-sensing dependent virulence factor and biofilm production 2.Blunting of host inflammatory response (eg, ↑IL-10, and ↓ IL-1ß, IL-6, IL-8, TNF-α, and ↓ chemotaxis); and 3. Enhanced antiviral response1.

The latter finding is quite unexpected but AZ appears to augment interferon response to rhinovirus in bronchial cells of COPD patients3.  With respiratory viruses (including rhinoviruses) causing 20-55% of all COPD exacerbations, perhaps this is another way AZ may help the host! Who would have thought!!

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  1. Vos R, Vanaudenaerde BM, Verleden SE, et al. Anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory properties of azithromycin involved in treatment and prevention of chronic lung allograft rejection. Transplantation 2012;94:101-109.
  2. Cochrane review. Treatment with macrolide antibiotics for people with cystic fibrosis and chronic chest infection. Nov 14, 2012.
  3. Menzel M, Akbarshahi H, Bjermer L, et al. Azithromycin induces anti-viral effects in cultured bronchial epithelial cells from COPD. Scientific Reports 2016; 6:28698. DOI:10.1038/srep 28698.



How does azithromycin (AZ) benefit patients with severe COPD or cystic fibrosis (CF)?

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