BACKGROUND: Inflammatory and proteolytic activity occurs in sputum from patients with stable purulent bronchiectasis and has been proposed as the main pathogenetic mechanism of the disease. This study was designed to define further the role of inflammation and proteolysis in bronchiectasis. METHODS: Neutrophil elastase activity, sputum concentrations of the serum derived inhibitors alpha 1 antiproteinase and alpha 2 macroglobulin, and the sputum to serum ratios of albumin and C reactive protein concentration were measured in 26 patients with bronchiectasis. RESULTS: Free elastase activity was found in 15 sputum samples. A trend to higher proteolytic and inflammatory activity was found between mucoid and purulent sputum samples, suggesting that inflammatory and proteolytic activities are related to the macroscopic degree of purulence. Purulent sputum had a high sputum to serum ratio of C reactive protein, suggesting local production or active transport of this protein into bronchial secretions. C reactive protein was more sensitive than albumin in detecting a higher degree of inflammation in elastase positive samples. CONCLUSION: The finding of greater concentrations of alpha 2 macroglobulin in purulent and elastase positive samples than in mucopurulent, mucoid and elastase negative sputum samples suggests that this inhibitor may have a role in the proteolysis-antiproteolysis balance in bronchial secretions.
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