The hypothesis, some 30 years ago, that NE was the sole proteolytic agent responsible for the development of emphysema seems naive in retrospect. The availability of technology to measure NE facilitated the early research into the relationship between NE and lung disease. Despite an abundance of information on the activity of NE in the lung, it will probably require prospective studies in man with specific NE inhibitors or control at the gene level to establish a causal relationship between NE and lung disease. Parallel research has resulted in the isolation and characterisation of NE inhibitors other than PI and, indeed, alternative proteolytic enzymes that might contribute to lung disease. It is perhaps impossible now to think that a single proteinase, however omnipotent it may be, causes lung diseases as diverse as emphysema and fibrosis. An important aspect that is emerging is the interrelationship between proteolytic enzymes produced by different, or sometimes the same, cells that could potentiate tissue proteolysis. The evidence suggests that there is likely to be coordinated action between neutrophils, macrophages, and possibly mesenchymal proteinases which can activate or inactivate each other. In addition, one class of proteinases often appears able to proteolytically inactivate inhibitors of the opposite class, which presumably could amplify proteolysis if it occurred in vivo. Although the work on this aspect of proteinase activity is in its infancy, one suspects that part of the normal regulation of proteinase activity might include compartmentalisation. For example, the neutrophil stores proteinases before appropriate release and can inactivate PI to enable proteolytic action pericellularly, whereas degradation of extracellular matrix by macrophages requires interaction between the cell and matrix which is facilitated by cell receptor bound uPA. Disintegration of these "compartments" due to oedema, proteolysis, or for mechanical reasons could, firstly, expose further extracellular matrix substrates to inflammatory and damaged cell proteinases but, secondly, might enhance proteinase potential by the cooperative action of these enzymes. It seems increasingly likely that, where proteinases play a part, there is a cocktail of proteinases that is characteristic of the injury that develops (fig). What remains unclear is why only a proportion of those susceptible, such as smokers or those with acute lung injury, develop irreversible lung disease. This suggests that there are other factors acquired or inherited that need to be considered.
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