To investigate the basis of subclinical alveolitis in patients with primary biliary cirrhosis, 10 primary biliary cirrhosis patients were studied by bronchoalveolar lavage. Both bronchoalveolar lavage lymphoid and non-lymphoid cell populations were analysed using immunocytological methods to determine their proportions and phenotypic features in an attempt to gain information as to possible immune mechanisms active in the lung of these patients. Six of the 10 patients in our study showed evidence of an alveolitis (raised lymphocyte count: 27.6 (4.3)% of total count) on lavage. The results were compared with control groups of normal volunteers and patients with active pulmonary sarcoidosis. The six primary biliary cirrhosis patients with lymphocytosis had a raised CD4/CD8 T-cell ratio (4.13:1), similar to the sarcoid patients (5.60:1). A proportion of these T-lymphocytes expressed markers of activation (HLA-DR+ 7.5 (2.1)%); CD25 + 2.3 (0.9)%; CD7 + 5.8 (1.5)%. This increased T-cell activation was also seen in the sarcoid groups (HLA-DR+ 10.0 (1.9)%; CD25 + 3.0 (1.1)%; CD7 + 5.0 (0.2)%). This was not seen in the primary biliary cirrhosis patients without lymphocytosis and the normal volunteers. Within the non-lymphoid cell population, an increase in dendritic (RFD1+) cells was seen in primary biliary cirrhosis patients with lymphocytosis (31.2 (1.9)%) and sarcoid patients (46.3 (5.1)%) in contrast with the normal and primary biliary cirrhosis group without lymphocytosis. The primary biliary cirrhosis patients without lymphocytes had a relatively greater proportion of mature phagocytes (RFD7+). We postulate that these observations suggest the emergence in the lung of a granuloma producing mechanism similar to that occurring in the liver. By comparison, the alveolitis found in primary biliary cirrhosis is consistent with that observed in interstitial granulomatous lung disorders such as sarcoidosis.
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