Autopsy findings suggest that lung surfactant is damaged in the adult respiratory distress syndrome. In the present study 225 bronchoalveolar lavage specimens (78 from 36 patients, 1-78 yr old with respiratory failure, 135 from another 128 patients with other respiratory disease, and 12 from healthy controls) were assayed for the lung profile [lecithin/sphingomyelin (L/S) ratio, saturated lecithin, phosphatidylinositol, and phosphatidylglycerol]. Bronchoalveolar lavage fluid was further analyzed for phospholipids and for phosphatidic acid phosphohydrolase, phospholipase A2, and phosphatidylinositol phosphodiesterase activities. A lipid-protein complex was isolated and analyzed for surface activity, and plasma was measured for myoinositol. There were only small differences seen in the recovery of total phospholipid between respiratory failure patients and normal controls. However, in respiratory failure, phospholipids in bronchoalveolar lavage were qualitatively different from those recovered either from normal controls or from patients with other lung disease: the LO/S ratio, phosphatidylglycerol, and disaturated lecithin were low, whereas sphingomyelin and phosphatidylserine were prominent. These abnormalities were present early in respiratory failure and tended to normalize during recovery. Low L/S ratio (less than 2), and low phosphatidylglycerol (1% or less of glycerophospholipids) in bronchoalveolar lavage was always associated with respiratory failure. Abnormal lavage phospholipids were not due to plasma contamination. The phospholipase studies revealed little evidence of increased catabolism of phospholipids. In respiratory failure, the lipid-protein complexes from lung lavage were not surface active, whereas that from healthy controls had surface properties similar to lung surfactant. Phospholipids from patients with respiratory failure were similar to those from respiratory distress syndrome in the newborn. However, the latter condition is characterized by fast recovery of surfactant deficiency and by high plasma myoinositol that suppresses the synthesis of surfactant phosphatidylglycerol and increases phosphatidylinositol (Pediatr. Res. 1981. 15: 720). On the other hand, in adult respiratory distress syndrome, the abnormality in surfactant phospholipids may last for weeks and in most cases is associated with low phosphatidylinositol, low phosphatidylglycerol, and low plasma myoinositol.


M Hallman, R Spragg, J H Harrell, K M Moser, L Gluck


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