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Eur Respir J. 1996 Jun;9(6):1174-80.

Measurement of inflammatory indices in induced sputum: effects of selection of sputum to minimize salivary contamination.

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  • 1Department of Medicine, St. Joseph's Hospital, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.


Sputum examination is being used increasingly as a noninvasive method to assess airway inflammation. Expectorated sputum has variable contamination with saliva. Methods of processing have included the selection of portions of the sample considered to be representative of pulmonary origin versus use of the whole specimen, which is confounded by varying volumes of saliva. We compared cell profiles and eosinophilic cationic protein (ECP) concentration in sputum selected from the expectorate and in the usually discarded residual portion to determine to what degree salivary contamination is minimized and if the results are representative of lower respiratory secretions. Sputum was induced with hypertonic saline in six healthy and nine asthmatic subjects. All portions considered to be of pure lower respiratory tract origin were selected from the residual. The selected and residual portions were treated with dithiothreitol, total cell counts and cell viability were obtained, cytospins were made for differential cell counts and supernatant was collected for ECP assay. Selected portions of the specimens, in comparison with the residual portion showed: little squamous cell contamination (median 1.2 vs 70%; p < 0.001); higher total cell counts.mL-1 (5.1 vs 0.5 x 10(6) cells.mL-1; p < 0.001); higher number of viable nonsquamous cells per sample (1.9 vs 0.6 x 10(6) cells; p < 0.001); higher slide quality score (7 vs 4; p < 0.001); and higher levels of ECP (768 vs 136 micrograms.L-1; p < 0.001). There were no differences in the differential cell counts of eosinophils (1.3 vs 3.8%), neutrophils (44 vs 32%), and lymphocytes (0.6 vs 0.6%). While the proportion of macrophages was lower (36 vs 54%; p < 0.05), the absolute number (41 vs 19 x 10(4) cells; p < 0.05) was higher in the selected portion. In summary, selection of all portions of induced sputum from the expectorate minimized the confounding influence of saliva. Loss of nonsquamous cells in the residual portion was variable but usually less than one third of those in the selected portion. With one exception, this loss had little influence on the differential counts of inflammatory cells. Similar observations apply to eosinophilic cationic protein levels. We conclude that, in healthy subjects and treated asthmatics, inflammatory markers in the selected portion of the expectorate can be used to represent those in the lower respiratory tract in general.

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