Purpose: Bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) was performed in 43 nonsmoking patients with scleroderma (systemic sclerosis) to determine the frequency of alveolitis, the status of BAL findings over time, and the relationship of such findings to pulmonary status initially and at follow-up.
Patients and methods: Forty-three nonsmoking patients with systemic sclerosis underwent extensive pulmonary evaluation including pulmonary function tests, chest radiographs, and BAL with analysis of cells, IgG, albumin, immune complexes, and fibronectin.
Results: Alveolitis was detected on initial BAL evaluation in 21 patients (49%). Alveolitis was characterized by hypercellular lavage fluid, due to an absolute increase in alveolar macrophages and due to an increase in both the absolute number and percentage of granulocytes (neutrophils and eosinophils). Patients with systemic sclerosis had significantly higher levels of IgG and immune complexes in BAL fluid than did control subjects, and alveolar macrophages from patients with systemic sclerosis released higher amounts of fibronectin in vitro. In serial studies, alveolitis was found to persist. Patients with alveolitis had greater dyspnea than patients without alveolitis (p = 0.02), and they had greater reductions in lung volumes and carbon monoxide diffusing capacity (DLCO) (p = 0.004). Furthermore, patients with persistent alveolitis had significantly greater reductions in pulmonary function over time than patients without alveolitis (forced vital capacity [FVC]: -0.69 L versus -0.05 L, p less than 0.001; DLCO: -2.94 mL/minute/mm Hg versus +0.16 mL/minute/mm Hg, p = 0.03). BAL was used to select patients with alveolitis and at risk of pulmonary deterioration, and treatment was instituted with cyclophosphamide and prednisone, resulting in significant improvement in dyspnea (p less than 0.001) and the rate of change of FVC (p = 0.02) and DLCO (p less than 0.001).
Conclusion: We conclude that alveolitis occurs frequently in systemic sclerosis and that BAL is useful in identifying such patients who are at risk for a further decline in pulmonary status. Preliminary observations suggest that treatment of patients with active alveolitis may result in improvement in pulmonary status.