Elastin degradation has been reported to be increased in patients with cystic fibrosis (CF). In order to further explore evidence for elastin degradation in a group of 18 patients with CF with a wide range of disease severity, we used an isotope dilution method to measure urinary desmosine (DES) and isodesmosine (IDES), amino acids derived exclusively from cross-linked elastin, and hydroxylysylpyridinoline (HP) and lysylpyridinoline (LP), amino acids derived exclusively from cross-linked collagen. Urinary DES and IDES (mean +/- SD) were 23.9 +/- 30.7 and 18.5 +/- 22.4 micrograms/g creatinine, respectively, in the patients with CF versus 7.5 +/- 1.7 and 6.8 +/- 1.4 micrograms/g creatinine, respectively, in 10 healthy control subjects (p < 0.001); only two patients with CF had DES values within the control range. The values of urinary HP and LP in the CF group were 54.9 +/- 39.1 and 12.3 +/- 8.6 nmol/mmol creatinine, respectively, versus 24.5 +/- 5.8 and 5.1 +/- 2.7 nmol/mmol creatinine, respectively, in the controls (p < 0.005). Both HP and LP were highly correlated (r = 0.71, p < 0.0001). Patients with CF had active pulmonary inflammation; neutrophils were abundant in the bronchoalveolar lavage fluid of the CF group and correlated with elastase activity measured with methoxysuccinyl Ala-Ala-Pro-Val paranitroanilide (r = 0.61, p < 0.05). Airway neutrophils had decreased expression of the complement receptor CR1 (CR1/CR3 of 0.17 +/- 0.15 versus 1.0 for blood neutrophils), a change known to be caused by uninhibited neutrophil elastase. We conclude that lung elastin is the most likely source of the increased DES and IDES in CF.