- Background Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease exacerbations (COPDEs) are associated with increased morbidity and mortality. Cell-free DNA (cfDNA) is a novel biomarker associated with clinical outcomes in several disease states but has not been studied in COPD. The objectives of this study were to assess cfDNA levels during a COPDE, to evaluate the association of cfDNA with clinical parameters and to explore the prognostic implications of cfDNA levels on long-term survival. Methods This was an observational study that assessed cfDNA levels in patients admitted to hospital for a COPDE. Plasma cfDNA levels of COPDE patients were compared to those of matched stable COPD patients and healthy controls. Multivariable and Cox regression analyses were used to assess the association of cfDNA levels with blood gas parameters and long-term survival. Results A total of 62 patients (46 males, forced expiratory volume in 1 second [FEV1] 38%±13%) were included. The median cfDNA levels on admission for COPDE patients was 1,634 ng/mL (interquartile range [IQR] 1,016–2,319) compared to 781 ng/mL (IQR 523–855) for stable COPD patients, matched for age and disease severity, and 352 ng/mL (IQR 209–636) for healthy controls (P<0.0001, for both comparisons). cfDNA was correlated with partial arterial pressure of carbon dioxide (PaCO2, r=0.35) and pH (r=−0.35), P=0.01 for both comparisons. In a multivariable analysis, PaCO2 was the only independent predictor of cfDNA. Using a cfDNA level of 1,924 ng/mL (threshold for abnormal PaCO2), those with high levels had a trend for increased 5-year mortality risk adjusted for age, sex and FEV1% (hazard ratio 1.92, 95% confidence interval 0.93–3.95, P=0.08). Conclusion Plasma cfDNA might offer a novel technique to identify COPD patients at increased risk of poor outcomes, but the prognostic utility of this measurement requires further study.