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BACKGROUND: Based on assessment of mRNA expression, the lung is a major site of expression of the vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) gene, largely from type II alveolar epithelial cells. With the knowledge that VEGF can function to induce vascular leak, we hypothesized that to protect the lung from pulmonary edema, the VEGF produced in the lung must be compartmentalized from the pulmonary endothelium, and thus must be compartmentalized to the surface of the respiratory epithelium. MATERIAL AND METHODS: To assess this hypothesis, we quantified the levels of VEGF in human respiratory epithelial lining fluid recovered by bronchoalveolar lavage from normal individuals. RESULTS: Strikingly, human respiratory epithelial lining fluid contains 11 +/- 5 ng/mL as quantified by ELISA, a 500-fold greater concentration than plasma (22 +/- 10 pg/mL, p < 0.0005). Western analysis of BAL fluid proteins showed the major VEGF isoform in respiratory epithelial lining fluid is VEGF165. CONCLUSIONS: With the knowledge that proteins of molecular mass like VEGF (34 to 46 kDa) slowly diffuse across the alveolar epithelium, it is likely that this high level "reservoir" of VEGF protein on the respiratory epithelial surface plays a role in normal lung endothelial biology. However, this compartmentalized VEGF reservoir may also be a "Damocles sword" poised to induce lung endothelial permeability in conditions of acute lung injury when the integrity of the alveolar epithelial barrier is breached.