BACKGROUND: The alveolar macrophage is believed to be important in the defence of the lung and possibly in the pathogenesis of lung disease. Cell counts in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid have suggested that smokers have an increased number of alveolar macrophages but have not enabled the number to be related to a measure of lung structure. METHODS: The number of alveolar macrophages was counted in histological sections from lung resection specimens from a group of smokers and non-smokers. The results were related to a measurement of lung structure obtained by means of an automated morphometric technique and expressed in terms of units of lung volume or of lung surface area. RESULTS: The smokers had a significantly increased number of alveolar macrophages per unit lung volume and per unit surface area, through the relative increase was less than has appeared from bronchoalveolar lavage studies. When smokers and non-smokers with similar lung structure were compared the smokers had more alveolar macrophages, indicating that smoking and not loss of lung structure is responsible for the increase. CONCLUSIONS: Smokers had more alveolar macrophages than non-smokers when the number was expressed quantitatively with respect to the underlying architecture. Changes in cell populations postulated to be important in the pathogenesis of disease within the lung should be related to lung architecture because this may vary considerably between individuals.
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