Alveolar proteinosis (AP) is characterized by excessive surfactant accumulation, and most cases are of unknown etiology. Standard therapy for AP is whole-lung lavage, which may not correct the underlying defect. Because the hematopoietic cytokine granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF) is required for normal surfactant homeostasis, we evaluated the therapeutic activity of GM-CSF in patients with idiopathic AP. Fourteen patients received 5 microg/kg/d GM-CSF for 6 to 12 wk with serial monitoring of the alveolar-arterial oxygen gradient ([A-a]DO2), diffusing capacity of carbon monoxide, computed tomographic scans, and exercise testing. Patients not responding to 5 microg/kg/d GM-CSF underwent stepwise dose escalation, and responding patients were retreated at disease recurrence. Stored pretreatment sera were assayed for GM-CSF-neutralizing autoantibodies. According to prospective criteria, five of 14 patients responded to 5 microg/kg/d GM- CSF, and one of four patients responded after dose escalation (20 microg/kg/d). The overall response rate was 43% (mean improvement in [A-a]DO2 = 23.2 mm Hg). Responses lasted a median of 39 wk, and were reproducible with retreatment. GM-CSF was well-tolerated, with no late toxicity seen. The only treatment-related factor predictive of response was GM-CSF-induced eosinophilia (p = 0.01). Each of 12 patients tested had GM-CSF-neutralizing autoantibodies present in pretreatment serum. We conclude that GM- CSF has therapeutic activity in idiopathic AP, providing a potential alternative to whole-lung lavage.