Old dilemma: asthma with irreversible airway obstruction or COPD

Fatemeh Fattahi, Judith M. Vonk, Nicole Bulkmans, Ruth Fleischeuer, Annette Gouw, Katrien Grunberg, Thais Mauad, Helmut Popper, Aloisio Felipe-Silva, Bart Vrugt, Joanne L. Wright, Hui-Min Yang, Janwillem W. H. Kocks, Machteld N. Hylkema, Dirkje S. Postma, Wim Timens*, Nick H. T. ten Hacken

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Older asthmatic patients may develop fixed airway obstruction and clinical signs of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). We investigated the added value of pathological evaluation of bronchial biopsies to help differentiate asthma from COPD, taking into account smoking, age, and inhaled corticosteroid (ICS) use. Asthma and COPD patients (24 of each category) were matched for ICS use, age, FEV1, and smoking habits. Five pulmonary and five general pathologists examined bronchial biopsies using an interactive website, without knowing patient information. They were asked to diagnose asthma or COPD on biopsy findings in both a pairwise and randomly mixed order of cases during four different phases, with intervals of 4-6 weeks, covering a maximal period of 36 weeks. Clinically concordant diagnoses of asthma or COPD varied between 63 %-73 %, without important differences between pairwise vs randomly mixed examination or between general vs pulmonary pathologists. The highest percentage of concordant diagnoses was in young asthmatic patients without ICS use and in COPD patients with ICS use. In non ICS users with fixed airway obstruction, a COPD diagnosis was favored if abnormal presence of glands, squamous metaplasia, and submucosal infiltrate was present and an asthma diagnosis in case of abnormal presence of goblet cells. In ICS users with fixed airway obstruction, abnormal presence of submucosal infiltrates, basement membrane thickening, eosinophils, and glands was associated with asthma. Histological characteristics in bronchial biopsies are reproducibly recognized by pathologists, yet the differentiation by histopathology between asthma and COPD is difficult without information about ICS use.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)583-593
Number of pages11
JournalVirchows Archiv
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Nov-2015


  • Asthma
  • COPD
  • Asthma COPD Overlap Syndrome
  • Pathology

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