The fibroproliferative phase of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) has traditionally been regarded as a late event but recent studies that suggest increased lung collagen turnover within 24 h of diagnosis challenge this view. We hypothesized that fibroproliferation is initiated early in ARDS, characterized by the presence of fibroblast growth factor activity in the lung and would relate to clinical outcome. Patients fulfilling American/European Consensus Committee criteria for ARDS and control patients ventilated for non-ARDS respiratory failure underwent bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) and serum sampling within 24 h of diagnosis and again at 7 d. The ability of BAL fluid (BALF) to stimulate human lung fibroblast proliferation in vitro was examined in relation to concentrations of N-terminal peptide for type III procollagen (N-PCP-III) in BALF/serum and clinical indices. At 24 h, ARDS lavage fluid demonstrated potent mitogenic activity with a median value equivalent to 70% (range 31-164) of the response to serum, and was significantly higher than control lavage (32% of serum response, range 11-42; p < 0.05). At 24 h, serum N-PCP-III concentrations were elevated in the ARDS group compared with control patients (2.8 U/ml; range 0.6-14.8 versus 1.1 U/ml; range 0.4-3.7, p < 0.0001) as were BALF N-PCP-III concentrations (2.9 U/ml; range 0. 6-11.4 versus 0.46 U/ ml; range 0.00-1.63, p < 0.01). In addition, BALF N-PCP-III concentrations at 24 h were significantly elevated in nonsurvivors of ARDS compared with survivors (p < 0.05). At 7 d, the mitogenic activity remained elevated in the ARDS group compared with control (p < 0.05) and was also significantly higher in ARDS nonsurvivors compared with survivors (67%; range 45-120 versus 31%; range 16-64, p < 0.05). These data are consistent with the hypothesis that fibroproliferation is an early response to lung injury and an important therapeutic target.