BACKGROUND--In fibrosing alveolitis activation of lung fibroblasts is the decisive event in the pathogenetic sequence leading to pulmonary fibrosis. Fibroblast stimulating activity was measured in bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluid to assess its relationship to the activity of fibrosing alveolitis. METHODS--Nine control subjects and 40 patients with fibrosing alveolitis caused by idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (n = 22) or pulmonary involvement in systemic sclerosis (n = 18) were studied. All patients were followed up by lung function testing for a minimum of six months (mean (SE) 13.3 (1.4) months). Twenty five patients received immunosuppressive therapy and 15 refused. At the beginning of follow up BAL was performed and, as a possible indicator of fibroblast stimulating mediators within the lungs, chemotactic migration of cultured human fibroblasts elicited by native BAL fluid was measured in Boyden-type chambers and expressed as a percentage of the chemoattractant effect of 25 ng/ml platelet derived growth factor. The procollagen III peptide level in BAL fluid served as a marker for collagen synthesis. RESULTS--Chemoattractant activity was elevated in the patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and systemic sclerosis compared with the control group, (mean (SE) 56.4% (8.5%)) and 72.3% (16.3%) v 12.6% (4.0%). Chemoattractant activity was inversely correlated with total lung capacity (TLC) (r = -0.45) and with vital capacity (VC) (r = -0.33). Procollagen III peptide concentrations in BAL fluid and chemoattractant activity were not significantly correlated. For further evaluation chemoattractant activity of 36% (mean value of controls +2 SD) was used to separate normal (< 36%) from elevated (> or = 36%) activity. At the end of follow up, untreated patients with high chemoattractant activity (> or = 36%) showed a significant reduction of VC, TLC, and exercise arterial oxygen tension (PaO2) and a small decrease in carbon monoxide transfer factor (TLCO), whereas a significant improvement in VC, TLC, and TLCO and a small increase of exercise PaO2 occurred in treated patients with high chemoattractant activity. Patients with low chemoattractant activity (< 36%) showed no consistent change in lung function measurements, irrespective of treatment. In contrast, lung function results and differential cell counts in BAL fluid failed to identify progressive disease. CONCLUSIONS--In patients with fibrosing alveolitis the chemoattractant activity of BAL fluid seems to be an independent indicator of lung fibroblast stimulating activity providing relevant information about disease activity, and may help to improve the clinical management of these patients.
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