In various allergic and inflammatory lung diseases the number and subset composition of lymphocytes in the bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluid are taken as indicators of the state of the disease. The number of lymphocytes in the BAL fluid depends on three main parameters: (1) entry into the bronchoalveolar space from the different compartments of the lung, (2) persistence in the bronchoalveolar space which is modified by the rate of local proliferation and apoptosis, and (3) exit into the draining bronchial lymph node via the lymphatic system. In healthy individuals lymphocytes in the BAL fluid seem to be a stable pool: each day there is hardly any entry, local cell division or cell death and few lymphocytes emigrate from this compartment. In contrast, during inflammatory, toxic and allergic reactions all parameters can increase rapidly with more lymphocytes entering, proliferating and/or undergoing apoptosis locally. Very little is known about factors such as cytokines and chemokines which may regulate these parameters. When interpreting data on lymphocyte numbers in patients, lymphocyte dynamics in the bronchoalveolar space have to be considered, and in the future it may be possible to manipulate these lymphocyte fluxes for therapeutic purposes.
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