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BACKGROUND: Lipopolysaccharides (LPS), widely used to study the mechanisms of gram-negative sepsis, increase airway resistance by constriction of terminal bronchioles. The role of the cyclooxygenase (COX) isoenzymes and their prostanoid metabolites in this process was studied. MATERIALS AND METHODS: Pulmonary resistance, the release of thromboxane (TX) and the expression of COX-2 mRNA were measured in isolated blood-free perfused rat lungs exposed to LPS. RESULTS: LPS induced the release of TX and caused increased airway resistance after about 30 min. Both TX formation and LPS-induced bronchoconstriction were prevented by treatment with the unspecific COX inhibitor acetyl salicylic acid, the specific COX-2 inhibitor CGP-28238, dexamethasone, actinomycin D, or cycloheximide. LPS-induced bronchoconstriction was also inhibited by the TX receptor antagonist BM-13177. The TX-mimetic compound, U-46619, increased airway resistance predominantly by constricting terminal bronchioles. COX-2-specific mRNA in lung tissue was elevated after LPS exposure, and this increase was attenuated by addition of dexamethasone or of actinomycin D. In contrast to LPS, platelet-activating factor (PAF) induced immediate TX release and bronchoconstriction that was prevented by acetyl salicylic acid, but not by CGP-28238. CONCLUSIONS: LPS elicits the following biochemical and functional changes in rat lungs: (i) induction of COX-2; (ii) formation of prostaglandins and TX; (iii) activation of the TX receptor on airway smooth muscle cells; (iv) constriction of terminal bronchioles; and (v) increased airway resistance. In contrast to LPS, the PAF-induced TX release is likely to depend on COX-1.