An enhanced proteolysis of lung interstitium is key event in the pathogenesis of emphysema, a major constituent of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. To assess whether urinary desmosine and/or hydroxyproline may be used as a marker of lung destruction we studied urinary excretions of these products in 20 patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and in 19 appropriate controls in 24h urine collection samples. For desmosine measurements, we developed a new indirect competitive enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. The extent of emphysema was measured in high resolution computed tomography (CT) scans, by considering lung area with CT numbers <-950 Hounsfield units (HU). Urinary desmosine excretion was significantly higher in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease than in controls (294+/-121 microg versus 183+/-93 microg, P=0.003), and was unrelated with both age and smoking habits. In patients with no evidence or only mild emphysema, desmosine excretion values were significantly higher (P=0.006) than those of patients with moderate to severe emphysema. In patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, urinary hydroxyproline excretion was positively correlated with urinary desmosine excretion but on the average, it was not different from that of controls. These data indicate that urinary desmosine is a sensitive biological marker of lung elastin catabolism. The relatively low levels of urinary desmosine observed in patients with severe emphysema may be accounted for a decrease in elastin catabolism due to reduced lung elastin mass. Urinary desmosine may be used to identify subjects at risk of developing emphysema and to assess the efficacy of therapeutic interventions.