Skip to main content

Characterization of leukotrienes in a pilot study of older asthma subjects


Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the lower airway that results in mucus secretion, airway edema and reversible airway obstruction [1]. These characteristic features lead to the clinical symptoms of asthma, which include recurrent episodes of wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness and coughing [2]. The pathophysiology of asthma is not fully elucidated but the current paradigm involves multiple cell types (ie. eosinophils, neutrophils, mast cells, T-cells) and their mediators.

The most recent estimates of asthma prevalence in those over the age of 65 are between 4 and 8%, which may be an underestimate due to an underdiagnosis of asthma in the elderly [3]. An increase in morbidity and mortality and a reduced response to bronchodilators in the emergency department setting have been shown in older asthmatics compared to their younger counterparts [47]. Elderly asthmatics also have a higher rate of severe exacerbations, emergency department visits, and hospitalizations than younger asthmatics [8, 9].

Leukotrienes are potent pro-inflammatory lipid mediators that have been shown to have a role in asthma [10]. Leukotrienes are a product of arachidonic acid via the 5-lipoxygenase pathway. Leukotriene B4 (LTB4) is a potent chemotactic agent and activator of neutrophils and is also produced mainly by neutrophils. The presence of LTB4 in the lung results in neutrophil recruitment and activation leading to superoxide anion generation and cholinergic airway hyperresponsiveness [11]. The cysteinyl leukotrienes (CysLTs), LTC4, LTD4, and LTE4, are known for their profound effect on the airway, including increased microvascular permeability and vasodilation, airway smooth muscle contraction, mucous secretion and impaired mucociliary clearance [10]. CysLTs are produced by eosinophils, basophils, mast cells, macrophages and to a lesser degree by T cells and endothelial cells [10, 12]. Increased CysLT levels have been detected in the sputum of patients with asthma and have been shown to correlate with symptom severity [13].

Despite older asthmatics often having more severe disease and exacerbations, few studies have been done to characterize their asthma at a cell and/or molecular level. We have previously shown that functional differences exist in eosinophils from older adult asthmatics in vitro; specifically, diminished IL-5 stimulated eosinophil derived neurotoxin (EDN) release and superoxide production [14]. In this pilot study, we sought to compare pro-inflammatory lipid mediator production, specifically leukotrienes LTB4 and CysLT, both in vitro and in vivo in young and older adult asthmatics. Identifying the inflammatory differences seen in older asthmatics may be important for the diagnosis, improving the morbidity and mortality, as well as determining optimal therapies of the disease in this growing population.


We recruited subjects in two age groups, 20 to 40 years (n = 12) and 50 to 70 years (n = 6), in a study protocol approved by the University of Wisconsin Health Sciences Institutional Review Board. Inclusion criteria included a physician diagnosis of mild to moderate asthma with a provocative concentration of methacholine causing a 20% fall in FEV1 (PC20) of < 8 mg/mL or albuterol reversibility on spirometry of ≥ 12%. Exclusion criteria included history of tobacco use > 5 pack-years or use in the previous year, prednisone use within 1 month, donation of blood (greater than 1/2 pint) in the previous 8 weeks, FEV1 < 60%, severe asthma, upper and/or lower respiratory tract infection in the previous 4 weeks, diabetes, pregnancy, or an active cardiovascular disease other than controlled hypertension.

At the study visit, medical history, spirometry with bronchodilator reversibility, sputum induction, allergy skin prick test, physician exam and phlebotomy were performed. Sputum processing was performed as described previously [15]. LTB4, LTC4 and CysLT levels in culture supernates or the sputum samples were measured using the LTB4, LTC4 and CysLT competitive EIA kits, respectively (Cayman Chemical, Ann Arbor, MI). Heparinized venous blood was lysed in a hypotonic solution and subjected to gradient centrifugation. Neutrophils were isolated from the granulocyte pellet and were > 95% pure and > 98% viable. Eosinophils were also isolated from the granulocyte pellet by negative selection using anti-CD16, anti-CD14, and anti-CD3 magnetic beads (Miltenyi Biotechnology; Auburn,CA) as described previously [16]. The eosinophils were typically > 99% pure and > 98% viable.


Table 1 shows a comparison of lung function and peripheral blood characteristics for the subjects in the study. Both FEV1 and FVC were significantly lower in the older group compared to the young subjects, which is consistent with lung volume decreases in the aging population [17]. However, percentage of predicted values, for both FEV1 and FVC were comparable between young and older groups, suggesting similar disease severity in both age groups. There was no difference in peripheral blood eosinophil counts between young and older asthmatics. Sputum cell differentials revealed a tendency for increased percentage of neutrophils in older asthma subjects, 72(65-76)%, compared to young asthma subjects, 42(21-66)%, p = 0.09 (Figure 1A). This is consistent with our previous cohort of older asthmatics exhibiting a significantly higher percentage of sputum neutrophils [18]. The total number of eosinophils in the sputum were similar in both the young and older group [Young: 0.6 (0-1.3) × 10,000 cells/gm; Older: 0.5 (0.1-3.9) × 10,000 cells/gm; Figure 1B], while the total numbers of neutrophils apparently increased though not statistically significant [Young: 30 (4-138) × 10,000 cells/gm; Older 68 (4-304) × 10,000 cells/gm; Figure 1C].

Table 1 Subject Characteristics
Figure 1
figure 1

Sputum cell type differentials. Box plots of sputum cell percentages (1A) and total eosinophil (1B) and neutrophil (1C) number are shown for young subjects (white bars; n = 11), and older subjects (gray bars; n = 6). One young subject had > 80% epithelial cells in the sputum (indicating oral/salivary contamination) and was not included in the sputum differential. Comparisons between the young and older groups were performed with t test analysis or Mann-Whitney rank sum analysis. Statistical significance was defined at p < 0.05. Mac = macrophage; Eos = eosinophil; Neut = neutrophil; Lymph = lymphocyte; Median: ----- (solid)

In vivo levels of LTB4 and CysLT were measured in the induced sputum samples from young and older asthma subjects. Sputum LTB4 levels in older asthma subjects, 320 (301-397) pg/mL, were significantly decreased compared to the young subjects, 1235 (706-2259) pg/mL, p = 0.015 (Figure 2A). Sputum CysLT levels in older asthma subjects, 264 (224-269) pg/mL, were lower than in younger asthma subjects, 717 (408-1152) pg/mL; however, this only approached statistical significance, p = 0.06 (Figure 2B).

Figure 2
figure 2

In vivo and in vitro leukotriene levels. Comparisons between the young and older groups were performed with t test analysis or Mann-Whitney rank sum analysis. Statistical significance was defined at p < 0.05. White bars: young subjects; Gray bars: older subjects Mean: - - -(dashed) Median: ----- (solid). 2A and 2B. Sputum was processed and LTB4 and CysLT levels were measured using the LTB4 and CysLT competitive EIA kit, respectively (Cayman Chemical, Ann Arbor, MI). Sputolysin (Calbiochem) was added to all assay standards to represent an equivalent amount in the diluted sputum samples and run in duplicate. Standard curves for LTB4 and CysLT were performed both with and without Sputolysin to ensure an equivalent slope was obtained. Young: n = 11 (One young subject had > 80% epithelial cells in the sputum and was not included in the biochemical analysis.); Older: n = 6. 2C and 2D. Peripheral blood neutrophils and eosinophils were isolated and stimulated with calcium ionophore (A23187) for 60 min at 37°C. LTB4 and LTC4 were measured by competitive EIA kit (Cayman Chemical, Ann Arbor, MI). Young: n = 12; Older: n = 6

In order to determine whether these in vivo differences were due to an age-related diminished ability of neutrophils or eosinophils to produce leukotrienes, both purified neutrophils and eosinophils were treated with calcium ionophore to stimulate leukotriene production. As shown in Figure 2C, the neutrophil production of LTB4 from older asthma subjects, 8708 ± 5326 pg/mL, was comparable to the young subjects, 10234 ± 3078 pg/mL, p = 0.45. Eosinophil production of LTC4 from young, 5836 (3678-9512) pg/mL, and older asthma subjects, 4766 (2685-8456) pg/mL, was also similar in the two groups, p = 0.78 (Figure 2D).

Since GM-CSF can stimulate leukotriene production by neutrophils and eosinophils[11] and changes in GM-CSF mediated signaling have been shown to occur in elderly human subjects in vitro[19, 20], we examined GM-CSF production by peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) in the older and young asthma subjects. As shown in Figure 3, GM-CSF production by unstimulated PBMC was similar; however, LPS-stimulated PBMCs from the older asthma subjects, 125 ± 118 pg/mL, produced significantly less GM-CSF than their younger counterparts, 317 ± 136 pg/mL, p = 0.01.

Figure 3
figure 3

Production of GM-CSF in PBMCs; Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) were either not stimulated or stimulated with LPS (0.4 μg/mL) and supernatants analyzed by ELISA for GM-CSF. Comparisons between the young and older groups were performed with t test analysis. Statistical significance was defined at p < 0.05. White bars: young subjects (n = 12); Gray bars: older subjects (n = 6); Mean: - - - (dashed) Median: ----- (solid)


To our knowledge, a characterization of leukotriene levels has not been previously performed in an older adult asthma population. In this pilot study of young and older mild-to-moderate asthmatics we found that older asthma subjects had lower in vivo levels of LTB4 and CysLT in the sputum at baseline disease. This difference in leukotriene levels was not a reflection of fewer eosinophils and neutrophils in the airway as the total number of these cells in the sputum were similar or greater in our older asthmatic group. However, young and older asthma subjects produced comparable amounts of LTB4 and LTC4in vitro when neutrophils and eosinophils, respectively, were stimulated with calcium ionophore. The observation that LPS stimulation of PBMCs resulted in less GM-CSF production in the older asthma subjects provides a potential explanation for the age-related differences in sputum leukotriene levels. Rather than an intrinsic defect in neutrophils and eosinophils, there may be less GM-CSF in the airways of older asthmatics serving as a stimulant to produce leukotrienes. However, it is possible that other age-related changes in the in vivo inflammatory milieu contribute to the diminished levels of leukotrienes in the airway.

There are several limitations to this study including the absence of a control non-asthmatic population, lack of subjects >65 years old, and few total number of subjects enrolled. Though multiple studies have consistently revealed increases in leukotriene production in asthmatic airways compared to controls, we cannot fully gauge the magnitude of our findings in the older asthmatic without non-asthmatic older controls [21]. It is possible though that our findings would have been more profound if we had more subjects in an even older (> 65 years old) population. Furthermore, as a pilot study, we had a limited number of subjects enrolled in order to establish preliminary observations to serve as the focus of future studies.

Calcium ionophore is a potent activator of leukotriene production in eosinophils and neutrophils. It is possible that we were unable to detect small differences in leukotriene production in vitro with the use of such a potent stimulator of leukotriene production. Therefore, a less potent, physiologically-relevant stimulant (such as GM-CSF) could reveal a difference in leukotriene production in vitro.

The use of inhaled glucocorticoids by some subjects in our study may represent a confounder as glucocorticoids can have multiple effects such as a decrease in inflammatory mediators and neutrophil apoptosis [22]. However, glucocorticoids have not been shown to affect LTB4 formation in vitro and in vivo[23]. Also, we performed a statistical analysis of paired young and older subjects that were matched based on inhaled corticosteroid use, which continued to show statistically significant differences in the in vivo leukotriene levels (data not shown). Thus, the use of inhaled glucocorticoids alone cannot explain our findings.

The lower levels of CysLTs in the airways of older adults may have an impact on the effectiveness of CysLT receptor antagonists in the older population. Two studies to date have examined the efficacy of the CysLT receptor antagonists in an older adult population and concluded that their effectiveness might be limited or altered in older asthmatics [24, 25]. Furthermore, the neutrophil predominance found in the airway of older asthmatics may actually represent a tendency for decreased responsiveness to glucocorticoids as has been observed in the neutrophilic phenotype of severe asthma [26].

Our findings show that aging can result in changes in the airway environment in asthmatics, specifically an increase in airway neutrophils and decreases in both LTB4 and CysLT levels at baseline. This characterization of leukotrienes in older adult asthmatics reveals significant differences that may have clinical relevance not only in baseline asthma but also during an exacerbation of disease. Understanding the biological changes of airway inflammation in the aging population will aid in the development of future therapies and impact the increased morbidity and mortality that is associated with this phenotype of asthma.



cysteinyl leukotrienes


leukotriene B4


peripheral blood mononuclear cells


granulocyte macrophage colony-stimulating factor


eosinophil derived neurotoxin


forced vital capacity


forced expiratory volume in 1 second




  1. National Asthma Education and Prevention Program: Expert panel report 3: (Source Document). 2007, Bethesda, MD: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute,

    Google Scholar 

  2. Busse W, Kraft M: Cysteinyl leukotrienes in allergic inflammation: strategic target for therapy. Chest. 2005, 127 (4): 1312-26. 10.1378/chest.127.4.1312.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  3. Enright PL: Underdiagnosis and Undertreatment of Asthma in the Elderly. Chest. 1999, 116 (3): 603-613. 10.1378/chest.116.3.603.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  4. Bellia V: Asthma in the elderly - Mortality rate and associated risk factors for mortality. Chest. 2007, 132 (4): 1175-1182. 10.1378/chest.06-2824.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  5. Quadrelli SA, Roncoroni AM: Features of asthma in the elderly. Journal of Asthma. 2001, 38 (5): 377-389. 10.1081/JAS-100000259.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  6. Marks GB, Correll PK, Williamson M: Asthma in Australia 2005. Medical Journal of Australia. 2005, 183 (9): 445-446.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  7. Banerji A: Prospective multicenter study of acute asthma in younger versus older adults presenting to the emergency department. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 2006, 54 (1): 48-55. 10.1111/j.1532-5415.2005.00563.x.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  8. Oguzulgen IK: What can predict the exacerbation severity in asthma?. Allergy and Asthma Proceedings. 2007, 28 (3): 344-347. 10.2500/aap.2007.28.2949.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  9. Moorman JERR, Johnson CA: National Surveillance for Asthma --- United States, 1980--2004. MMWR Surveillance Summary. 2007, 56 (8): 1-54.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Busse WW: Leukotrienes and inflammation. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. 1998, 157 (6): S210-S213.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Nagata M, Sedgwick JB, Busse WW: Differential-Effects of Granulocyte-Macrophage Colony-Stimulating Factor on Eosinophil and Neutrophil Superoxide Anion Generation. Journal of Immunology. 1995, 155 (10): 4948-4954.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Hamid Q: Inflammatory cells in asthma: Mechanisms and implications for therapy. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. 2003, 111 (1, Supplement 1): S5-S17. 10.1067/mai.2003.22.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  13. Pavord ID: Induced Sputum Eicosanoid Concentrations in Asthma. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 1999, 160 (6): 1905-1909.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  14. Mathur SK: Age-Related Changes in Eosinophil Function in Human Subjects. Chest. 2008, 133 (2): 412-419. 10.1378/chest.07-2114.

    Article  PubMed Central  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  15. Gern JE: Relationship of Upper and Lower Airway Cytokines to Outcome of Experimental Rhinovirus Infection. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. 2000, 162 (6): 2226-2231.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  16. Yamamoto H, Sedgwick JB, Busse WW: Differential regulation of eosinophil adhesion and transmigration by pulmonary microvascular endothelial cells. Journal of Immunology. 1998, 161 (2): 971-977.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Sears MR: A Longitudinal, Population-Based, Cohort Study of Childhood Asthma Followed to Adulthood. The New England Journal of Medicine. 2003, 349 (15): 1414-1422. 10.1056/NEJMoa022363.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  18. Nyenhuis SM: Airway neutrophil inflammatory phenotype in older subjects with asthma. The Journal of allergy and clinical immunology. 125 (5): 1163-1165. 10.1016/j.jaci.2010.02.015.

  19. Fulop T: Signal transduction and functional changes in neutrophils with aging. Aging Cell. 2004, 3 (4): 217-226. 10.1111/j.1474-9728.2004.00110.x.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  20. Fortin CF: GM-CSF activates the Jak/STAT pathway to rescue polymorphonuclear neutrophils from spontaneous apoptosis in young but not elderly individuals. Biogerontology. 2007, 8 (2): 173-187. 10.1007/s10522-006-9067-1.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  21. Wenzel SE: The role of leukotrienes in asthma. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids. 2003, 69 (2-3): 145-155. 10.1016/S0952-3278(03)00075-9.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Schleimer RP: An assessment of the effects of glucocorticoids on degranulation, chemotaxis, binding to vascular endothelium and formation of leukotriene B4 by purified human neutrophils. Journal of Pharmacology And Experimental Therapeutics. 1989, 250 (2): 598-605.

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  23. Steiss JO: Effect of inhaled corticosteroid treatment on exhaled breath condensate leukotriene E-4 in children with mild asthma. Allergy and Asthma Proceedings. 2008, 29 (4): 371-375. 10.2500/aap.2008.29.3135.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  24. Creticos P: Loss of response to treatment with leukotriene receptor antagonists but not inhaled corticosteroids in patients over 50 years of age. Annals of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. 2002, 88 (4): 401-409.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. Korenblat PE: Effect of age on response to zafirlukast in patients with asthma in the Accolate Clinical Experience and Pharmacoepidemiology Trial (ACCEPT). Annals of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. 2000, 84 (2): 217-225.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Wenzel SE: Asthma: defining of the persistent adult phenotypes. The Lancet. 2006, 368 (9537): 804-813. 10.1016/S0140-6736(06)69290-8.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank Andrea Marquardt and Kristen Fox for assistance with laboratory procedures. We thank Jurga Zdanaviciene, our research coordinator for this study. We thank Mary Anne Kennedy, Tina Palas, and Cheri Swenson for administrative assistance. We also thank Michael Evans for his statistical assistance. This study was funded by T. Franklin Williams Scholar Program, co-sponsored by the Atlantic Philanthropies, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, the John A. Hartford Foundation, and the Association of Specialty Professors (SKM), Hartford Center of Excellence (SKM), NIH P01 HL088594 (SKM), GlaxoSmithKline/American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Allergy Fellowship Award (SMN), and Wisconsin Allergy and Immunology Research Training Program T32 AI007635 (SMN). GlaxoSmithKline had no role in study design, collection, analysis, interpretation of data, writing of the manuscript or the decision to submit the manuscript for publication.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sameer K Mathur.

Additional information

Competing interests

SMN received a fellowship award co-sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline, which helped fund this study.

Authors' contributions

SMN performed the leukotriene and GM-CSF immune assays, analyzed data, created graphs and drafted the manuscript. EAS performed cell separations, sputum processing, sputum differentials, assisted with immune assays, and assisted with data analysis and drafting of the manuscript. SKM conceived of the study, and participated in its design and coordination and helped to draft the manuscript. All authors reviewed and approved the final manuscript.

Authors’ original submitted files for images

Below are the links to the authors’ original submitted files for images.

Authors’ original file for figure 1

Authors’ original file for figure 2

Authors’ original file for figure 3

Rights and permissions

Open Access This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( ), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Nyenhuis, S.M., Schwantes, E.A. & Mathur, S.K. Characterization of leukotrienes in a pilot study of older asthma subjects. Immun Ageing 7, 8 (2010).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • DOI: