The pathophysiology of primary pulmonary hypertension (PPH) remains poorly understood. Vascular wall remodeling and endothelial dysfunction reflected by modifications in plasma fibrinolytic proteins and von Willebrand factor have been well documented in PPH. We hypothesize that endothelial mediators, produced in excess in PPH patients, may stimulate migrating mononuclear cells and thereby modulate alveolar macrophage function; in particular, the plasminogen activation system. Components of the fibrinolytic system were therefore studied in plasma, blood monocytes and alveolar macrophages obtained from bronchoalveolar lavage in 10 patients with PPH and in four controls. Compared with controls, PPH patients had elevated plasma levels of tissue-type plasminogen activator (15.6 +/- 9.9 versus 5.5 +/- 3 ng/ml) and plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (27.8 +/- 23 versus 16.4 +/- 12 ng/ml). In contrast, binding and activation of plasminogen by single-chain urokinase-type plasminogen activator (scu-PA) at the surface of blood monocytes and alveolar macrophages were not different from those of control values. Dissociation constants (K(d)) for binding of scu-PA and plasminogen to alveolar macrophages were similar in both PPH (4.7 +/- 1.5 and 0.88 +/- 0.3 micromol/l, respectively) and control (6.7 +/- 0.1 and 1.02 +/- 0.12 micromol/l, respectively) groups. These results indicate that in PPH patients the fibrinolytic activity of alveolar macrophages is normal, whereas endothelial fibrinolytic proteins are abnormally elevated in plasma.