It can be almost painful to watch individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) breathe. When they’re not coughing, they’re fighting for every breath. Approximately 24 million Americans struggle with COPD, which typically worsens over time and is the third most common cause of death.

A lung infection can be a life-threatening event for someone with COPD. Researchers now say that the bacterium, non-typeable Haemophilus influenzae (NTHI), may be a key factor in the hallmark signs of COPD: airway inflammation and impaired pulmonary function. While NTHI frequently exists in healthy humans without causing any problems, it seems to proliferate and flourish in the lower respiratory airways of patients with COPD.

The University at Buffalo recently was awarded a nearly $2.3 million, five-year National Institutes of Health grant to study and detail the mechanisms that allow NTHI to infect and survive in the airways of adults with COPD. This understanding may lead to new drugs that can effectively reduce related infections and save lives.

“In healthy people, H. influenzae is present in the throat but not in the lower airways of the respiratory tract,” said Dr. Timothy Murphy, UB SUNY distinguished professor and and principal investigator on the grant.

The three aims of the grant are to study how NTHI is able to persist from months to years in airways; to assess potential vaccine antigens that are under development; and to assess how NTHI can survive repeated courses of antibiotic therapy. In the last 50 years, other than the development of antibiotics, there has been little progress in developing new treatments and prevention of infections in COPD, Murphy said.