BACKGROUND: Tumour necrosis factor alpha may contribute to the lung damage that occurs in the adult respiratory distress syndrome. Whether it occurs in the lungs of preterm infants with respiratory distress syndrome is unknown. METHODS: Tumour necrosis factor alpha concentrations in the bronchopulmonary secretions of 28 ventilated preterm infants were determined by the enzyme linked immunosorbent assay. RESULTS: Concentrations were low in the first three days of life, being undetectable in nine of the 20 infants whose bronchopulmonary secretions were sampled. From day 4 concentrations were increased and detectable in all but two of 14 infants. Similar concentrations were found in samples taken on days 8-20 and 21-40. Greater mean concentrations occurred in those infants requiring oxygen for a long time. In six infants who received dexamethasone treatment for prolonged ventilator dependency treatment was associated with a reduction in tumour necrosis factor alpha concentrations. CONCLUSIONS: Tumour necrosis factor may contribute to the neonatal respiratory distress syndrome, as suggested for the adult respiratory distress syndrome. The therapeutic effects of dexamethasone treatment in neonatal respiratory distress syndrome may be mediated, at least in part, by reduced production of pulmonary tumour necrosis factor.
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