Background: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a common respiratory disorder for which new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches are required. Hallmarks of COPD are matrix destruction and neutrophilic airway inflammation in the lung. We have previously described two tri-peptides, N-α-PGP and PGP, which are collagen fragments and neutrophil chemoattractants. In this study, we investigate if N-α-PGP and PGP are biomarkers and potential therapeutic targets for COPD.Methods: Induced sputum samples from COPD patients, healthy controls and asthmatics were examined for levels of N-α-PGP and PGP using mass spectrometry and for the ability to generate PGP de novo from collagen. Proteases important in PGP generation in the lung were identified by the use of specific inhibitors in the PGP generation assay and by instillation of proteases into mouse lungs. Serum levels of PGP were compared between COPD patients and controls.Results: N-α-PGP was detected in most COPD sputum samples but in no asthmatics or controls. PGP was detected in a few controls and in all COPD sputum samples, where it correlated with levels of myeloperoxidase. COPD sputum samples had the ability to generate N-α-PGP and PGP de novo from collagen. PGP generation by COPD sputum was blocked by inhibitors of matrix metalloproteases (MMP's) 1 and 9 and prolyl endopeptidase. MMP's 1 and 9 and prolyl endopeptidase acted synergistically to generate PGP in vivo when instilled into mouse lungs. Serum levels of PGP were also significantly higher in COPD patients than in controls. Conclusion: N-α-PGP and PGP may represent novel diagnostic tests and biomarkers for COPD. Inhibition of this pathway may provide novel therapies for COPD directed at the chronic, neutrophilic, airway inflammation which underlies disease progression. © 2009 O'Reilly et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.