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BMJ Open Respir Res. 2018 Sep 23;5(1):e000321. doi: 10.1136/bmjresp-2018-000321. eCollection 2018.

Face mask sampling reveals antimicrobial resistance genes in exhaled aerosols from patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and healthy volunteers.

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Department of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK.
Department of Clinical Microbiology, University Hospitals of Leicester, Leicester, UK.



The degree to which bacteria in the human respiratory tract are aerosolised by individuals is not established. Building on our experience sampling bacteria exhaled by individuals with pulmonary tuberculosis using face masks, we hypothesised that patients with conditions frequently treated with antimicrobials, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), might exhale significant numbers of bacteria carrying antimicrobial resistance (AMR) genes and that this may constitute a previously undefined risk for the transmission of AMR.


Fifteen-minute mask samples were taken from 13 patients with COPD (five paired with contemporaneous sputum samples) and 10 healthy controls. DNA was extracted from cell pellets derived from gelatine filters mounted within the mask. Quantitative PCR analyses directed to the AMR encoding genes: blaTEM (β-lactamase), ErmB (target methylation), mefA (macrolide efflux pump) and tetM (tetracycline ribosomal protection protein) and six additional targets were investigated. Positive signals above control samples were obtained for all the listed genes; however, background signals from the gelatine precluded analysis of the additional targets.


9 patients with COPD (69%), aerosolised cells containing, in order of prevalence, mefA, tetM, ErmB and blaTEM, while three healthy controls (30%) gave weak positive signals including all targets except blaTEM. Maximum estimated copy numbers of AMR genes aerosolised per minute were mefA: 3010, tetM: 486, ErmB: 92 and blaTEM: 24. The profile of positive signals found in sputum was not concordant with that in aerosol in multiple instances.


We identified aerosolised AMR genes in patients repeatedly exposed to antimicrobials and in healthy volunteers at lower frequencies and levels. The discrepancies between paired samples add weight to the view that sputum content does not define aerosol content. Mask sampling is a simple approach yielding samples from all subjects and information distinct from sputum analysis. Our results raise the possibility that patient-generated aerosols may be a significant means of AMR dissemination that should be assessed further and that consideration be given to related control measures.


COPD; aerosol sampling; airborne dissemination; antimicrobial resistance; qPCR

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