Patients with homozygous (PiZ) alpha(1)-antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency have not only low baseline serum AAT levels (approximately 10 to 15% normal) but also an attenuated acute phase response. They are susceptible to the development of premature emphysema but may also be particularly susceptible to lung damage during bacterial exacerbations when there will be a significant neutrophil influx. The purposes of the present study were to assess the inflammatory nature of acute bacterial exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in subjects with AAT deficiency, to compare this with COPD patients without deficiency, and to monitor the inflammatory process and its resolution following appropriate antibacterial therapy. At the start of the exacerbation, patients with AAT deficiency had lower sputum AAT (p < 0.001) and secretory leukoprotease inhibitor (SLPI; p = 0.02) with higher elastase activity (p = 0.02) compared with COPD patients without deficiency. Both groups had a comparable acute phase response as assessed by C-reactive protein (CRP) but the AAT-deficient patients had a minimal rise in serum AAT (to < 6 microM). After treatment with antibiotics, in patients with AAT deficiency, there were significant changes in many sputum proteins including a rise in SLPI levels, and a reduction in myeloperoxidase (MPO) and elastase activity (p < 0. 005 for all measures); the sputum chemoattractants interleukin-8 (IL-8) and leukotriene B(4) (LTB(4)) fell (p < 0.01), and protein leak (sputum/serum albumin ratio) became lower (p < 0.01). The changes were rapid and within 3 d of the commencement of antibiotic therapy the biochemical markers had decreased significantly, but took a variable time thereafter to return to baseline values. In conclusion, patients with AAT deficiency had evidence of increased elastase activity at the start of the exacerbation when compared with nondeficient COPD patients which probably reflects a deficient antiproteinase screen (lower sputum AAT and SLPI). The increased bronchial inflammation at presentation resolved rapidly with 14 d of antibiotic therapy.