Monitoring neutrophil elastase and cathepsin g activity in human sputum samples

Dario L. Frey, Matteo Guerra, Marcus A. Mall, Carsten Schultz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Proteases are regulators of countless physiological processes and the precise investigation of their activities remains an intriguing biomedical challenge. Among the ~600 proteases encoded by the human genome, neutrophil serine proteases (NSPs) are thoroughly investigated for their involvement in the onset and progression of inflammatory conditions including respiratory diseases. Uniquely, secreted NSPs not only diffuse within extracellular fluids but also localize to plasma membranes. During neutrophil extracellular trap (NETs) formation, NSPs become an integral part of the secreted chromatin. Such complex behavior renders the understanding of NSPs pathophysiology a challenging task. Here, detailed protocols are shown to visualize, quantify and discriminate free and membrane-bound neutrophil elastase (NE) and cathepsin G (CG) activities in sputum samples. NE and CG are NSPs whose activities have pleiotropic roles in the pathogenesis of cystic fibrosis (CF) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): they promote tissue remodeling, regulate downstream immune responses and correlate with lung disease severity. The protocols show how to separate fluid and cellular fraction, as well as the isolation of neutrophils from human sputum for enzymatic activity quantification via small-molecule Förster resonance energy transfer-based (FRET) reporters. To gather specific insights into the relative role of NE and CG activities, a FRET readout can be measured by different technologies: i) in vitro plate reader measurements allow for high-throughput and bulk detection of protease activity; ii) confocal microscopy spatiotemporally resolves membrane-bound activity at the cell surface; iii) small-molecule FRET flow cytometry enables for the rapid evaluation of anti-inflammatory treatments via single-cell protease activity quantification and phenotyping. The implementation of such methods opens the doors to explore NSPs pathobiology and their potential as biomarkers of disease severity for CF and COPD. Given their standardization potential, their robust readout and simplicity of transfer, the described techniques are immediately shareable for implementation across research and diagnostic laboratories.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere62193
JournalJournal of Visualized Experiments
Issue number171
StatePublished - 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Chemical Engineering(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)


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