Article Text

The impact of azithromycin therapy on the airway microbiota in asthma
  1. Mariel Slater1,
  2. Damian W Rivett2,
  3. Lisa Williams3,
  4. Matthew Martin3,
  5. Tim Harrison3,
  6. Ian Sayers1,
  7. Kenneth D Bruce4,
  8. Dominick Shaw3
  1. 1Department of Therapeutics and Molecular Medicine, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK
  2. 2Department of Ecology and Evolution, Imperial College, London, UK
  3. 3Department of Respiratory Medicine, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK
  4. 4Institute of Pharmaceutical Science, Kings College London, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Kenneth Bruce, King's College London, Molecular Microbiology Research Laboratory, Institute of Pharmaceutical Science, 150 Stamford Street, London SE1 9NH, UK; kenneth.bruce{at}

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.


There is interest in the use of macrolide antibiotics in asthma. Macrolides have been shown to improve airway hyper-responsiveness (AHR) and measures of airway inflammation.1 The degree of AHR may relate to the microbiota present in the airways,2 with a recent study reporting that patients with asthma with a significant improvement in AHR following treatment with clarithromycin had a higher bacterial diversity prior to treatment.3 To our knowledge, the impact on the asthmatic airway microbiota of an antibiotic has not been reported and we therefore set out to establish if macrolide therapy was associated with a change in airway microbiota in asthma.


Five adult patients with moderate/severe asthma (British Thoracic Society step 4–5) (see online supplementary table S1) and no evidence of respiratory infection or bronchiectasis underwent bronchoscopy before and after 6 weeks of daily 250 mg azithromycin therapy. Patients had consented to the study (REC 11/EM/0062). Saline washings of the right upper lobe were obtained following standard procedure, DNA was isolated from the samples (see online supplementary Methods) and the microbiota analysed by using pyrosequencing performed by Molecular Research DNA. Microbiota results were analysed after random resampling of the data4 and calculation of two diversity indices; richness and Shannon's.


A total of 5223 reads were analysed from five sample pairs (pretreatment and post-treatment). Eighty-nine distinct genera were detected. Bacteria from the genera Staphylococcus (10.49%), Pseudomonas (9.35%), Streptococcus (7.99%) and Neisseria (4.75%) were all found to be among the more abundant genera in the pretreatment samples (table 1).

Table 1

Relative abundance of each of the most dominant genera in samples pretreatment and post-treatment

The total abundance of each genus is given as a percentage of the total number of reads within each of the three groups. Parentheses represent the number of samples where the genus was present.

Many genera reduced in abundance after treatment including Prevotella (3.43%), Staphylococcus (4.59%) and Haemophilus (3.28%), with Pseudomonas not detected post-treatment. There was an increase in the relative number of Anaerococcus (39.18%) observed in two patients after treatment.

Evaluation of richness revealed that the mean number of genera detected in the pretreatment samples was 19.37 genera (SD=5.68, n=5). This was higher than the mean number of genera post-treatment (mean=12.80 genera, SD=3.70, n=5). Equally, the mean Shannon's index in the pretreatment group was 1.62 (SD=0.20, n=5) compared with post-treatment (mean=1.22, SD=0.40, n=5). Non-parametric investigation found near significant differences between the patients pretreatment and post-treatment with richness and Shannon's index (both Kruskal-Wallis χ2=3.15, p=0.076; figure 1).

Figure 1

Characteristics of the microbiota in patients prior to and after azithromycin treatment. Each data point represents a single sample with horizontal lines indicating the mean number of genera detected (A) and Shannon's index rank (B). Near significant differences were reported between groups for both measures (χ2=3.15, p=0.076). Dotted lines are shown to indicate the change in measure for each patient.


This is the first study to examine longitudinal changes in airway microbiota following antibiotic treatment in asthma. Azithromycin therapy was associated with decreased bacterial richness in the airways and altered the airway microbiota leading to Anaerococcus becoming dominant within the bacterial community in some cases. Importantly, Pseudomonas, Haemophilus and Staphylococcus (three pathogenic genera associated with airway disease) were all reduced. This may explain the clinical improvement observed in asthma5 and suggests a possible antibiotic as well as immunomodulatory effect of macrolides on AHR. Azithromycin has also been shown to decrease mucus secretion, airway neutrophil accumulation as well as specific antibiotic and antipseudomonal activity. This early work indicates that larger studies of the effect of treatments on the airway microbiota and clinical outcomes are now needed.


View Abstract

Supplementary materials

  • Supplementary Data

    This web only file has been produced by the BMJ Publishing Group from an electronic file supplied by the author(s) and has not been edited for content.

    Files in this Data Supplement:


  • MS and DWR are joint first authors.

  • Contributors MS was involved in sample acquisition and processing, and contributed to the manuscript. DWR performed sample and statistical analysis, and contributed to the manuscript. LW was involved in sample acquisition and processing, and contributed to the manuscript. MM was involved in study design and contributed to the manuscript. TH was involved in study design and contributed to the manuscript. IS was involved in sample acquisition, study design and contributed to the manuscript. KDB was involved in sample and statistical analysis, study design and contributed to the manuscript. He is responsible for the overall content as guarantor. DS was involved in study design, sample acquisition and processing, and contributed to the manuscript. He is also responsible for the overall content as guarantor.

  • Funding This work was carried out under a grant from the British Medical Association James Trust award.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Ethics approval Nottingham Research Ethics Committee 2.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement Unpublished data from the study forms the body of Miss Slater's thesis and will be published in due course.