We have previously demonstrated that human bronchial smooth muscle cells possess specific binding sites for the potent bronchoconstrictive peptide endothelin 1 and that primary cultures of human bronchial epithelial cells constitutively produce an endothelin-like material that binds to smooth muscle cell receptors with a kinetic ability analogous to that shown by the authentic peptide. To evaluate the potential role of airway epithelium-derived endothelin in the pathogenesis of asthma, we have examined here the expression of endothelin in the bronchial epithelial cells of 6 patients with symptomatic asthma and reversible airflow obstruction. The epithelial cells of 5 normal volunteers and 5 patients with chronic bronchitis and airflow obstruction unaffected by bronchodilators were tested as controls. The bronchial epithelial cells of all the asthmatic patients expressed preproendothelin 1 mRNA, as assessed by in situ hybridization, and released high amounts of mature and biologically active endothelin during a 48-h period of incubation (radioimmunoassay). By contrast, the epithelial cells from normal donors did not contain preproendothelin 1 transcripts, and the endothelin-like material in their supernatants was invariably below the detection limit of the assay. Only a few cells from 2 patients with chronic bronchitis expressed preproendothelin mRNA and endothelin immunoreactivity. When hydrocortisone (10(-6)M) was added to the culture medium of asthmatic bronchial epithelial cells for 48 h, the release of immunoreactive endothelin significantly decreased (p < 0.025), but the numbers of cells expressing preproendothelin 1 mRNA did not change to the same extent.