Previous metagenomic studies in asthma have been limited by inadequate sequencing depth for species-level bacterial identification and by heterogeneity in clinical phenotyping. We hypothesize that chronic bacterial airways infection is a key "treatable trait" whose prevalence, clinical phenotype and reliable biomarkers need definition. In this study, we have applied a method for Oxford Nanopore sequencing for the unbiased metagenomic characterization of severe asthma. We optimized methods to compare performance of Illumina MiSeq, Nanopore sequencing, and RT-qPCR on total sputum DNA extracts against culture/MALDI-TOF for analysis of induced sputum samples from highly phenotyped severe asthma during clinical stability. In participants with severe asthma (n = 23) H. influenzae was commonly cultured (n = 8) and identified as the dominant bacterial species by metagenomic sequencing using an optimized method for Illumina MiSeq and Oxford Nanopore. Alongside superior operational characteristics, Oxford Nanopore achieved near complete genome coverage of H. influenzae and demonstrated a high level of agreement with Illumina MiSeq data. Clinically significant infection was confirmed with validated H. influenzae plasmid-based quantitative PCR assay. H. influenzae positive patients were found to have sputum neutrophilia and lower FeNO. In conclusion, using an optimized method of direct sequencing of induced sputum samples, H. influenzae was identified as a clinically relevant pathogen in severe asthma and was identified reliably using metagenomic sequencing. Application of these protocols in ongoing analysis of large patient cohorts will allow full characterization of this clinical phenotype. IMPORTANCE The human airways were once thought sterile in health. Now metagenomic techniques suggest bacteria may be present, but their role in asthma is not understood. Traditional culture lacks sensitivity and current sequencing techniques are limited by operational problems and limited ability to identify pathogens at species level. We optimized a new sequencing technique-Oxford Nanopore technologies (ONT)-for use on human sputum samples and compared it with existing methods. We found ONT was effective for rapidly analyzing samples and could identify bacteria at the species level. We used this to show Haemophilus influenzae was a dominant bacterium in the airways in people with severe asthma. The presence of Haemophilus was associated with a "neutrophilic" form of asthma - a subgroup for which we currently lack specific treatments. Therefore, this technique could be used to target chronic antibiotic therapy and in research to characterize the full breadth of bacteria in the airways.
Respiratory Medicine Unit, Experimental Medicine Division, Nuffield Department of Medicine, University of Oxfordgrid.4991.5, John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, United Kingdom.