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We characterized the elastase and antielastase activity of the alveolar fluid of seven patients with the adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and thirteen normal volunteers. Alpha-1-antitrypsin (A1AT) concentrations were 60-fold higher in ARDS as compared to normal lavage fluid (2,140 +/- 498 nM; 36.1 +/- 4.2 nM, respectively). ARDS fluid antineutrophil elastase activity was also considerably higher than that of normals (979 +/- 204 nM; 31.3 +/- 2.9 nM, respectively). Despite the antineutrophil elastase excess, 5 of 7 ARDS lavage samples contained elastase activity (mean, 6.1 +/- 2.4 pM) as assayed using low-molecular-mass substrate, while only 1 of 13 normal subjects had detectable elastase activity (0.2 pM) (P less than 0.01, compared with ARDS). That this activity was due to alpha-2-macroglobulin (A2MG)-complexed neutrophil elastase was evidenced by (a) the Sephadex G-75 elution profile; (b) the inactivity against insoluble [3H]elastin; (c) the inhibitory profile with phenylmethylsulfonyl fluoride, methoxy-succinyl-alanyl-alanyl-prolyl-valyl-chloromethylketone, ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid, and A1AT; and (d) the immobilization by A2MG antibody bound to polystyrene plates. Furthermore, in agreement with the predicted affinity of A1AT and A2MG for neutrophil elastase, the ratio of A2MG to A1AT in the fluid (0.57%) coincided with the ratio of the A2MG- to A1AT-complexed elastase (0.36%). These findings suggest that the net lung protease-antiprotease balance in ARDS is shifted largely in favor of the antiproteases (chiefly A1AT), and that the antiproteases, A1AT and A2MG, have similar affinities for neutrophil elastase in vivo.