We assessed whether incubation with human serum from atopic individuals containing high concentrations of immunoglobulin E (IgE) causes augmentation of maximal contraction of human bronchial smooth muscle from non-atopic subjects in vitro. Bronchi were obtained from eight patients undergoing lung resection, and force-velocity relationships were determined for eight pairs of epithelium-intact bronchial rings of generations 6-7 using an electromagnetic lever system, which allowed isotonic shortening when load-clamps [from 0 to maximal isometric force (P0)] were applied at specific times after onset of contraction. Contractions were elicited by supramaximal electrical field stimulation (50 Hz, 10 s train duration, 25 V). Optimal length (Lo) for each tissue was determined during equilibration. After resection, tissues were sensitized passively with human sera containing high titers (> 1,000 U/ml) of IgE by incubation for 16 h at 20 degrees C. Maximal shortening velocity (Vmax) was increased for passively sensitized bronchi [0.1150 +/- 0.0240 1/2 circumferences/s (1/2Cir/s)] compared with sham-sensitized bronchi [0.0731 +/- 0.0152 1/2Cir/s, P = 0.038]. Similarly, maximal shortening (delta Lmax) was augmented in sensitized bronchial rings (11.27 +/- 1.80 %Lo) compared with sham-sensitized tissues (8.19 +/- 1.39 %Lo, P = 0.012). However, P0 did not differ between sensitized (122.5 +/- 24.4 mN/cm2) compared with sham-sensitized tissues (138.4 +/- 32.1 mN/cm2, P = 0.642). Our data are the first demonstration that Vmax and delta Lmax are augmented in sensitized but not challenged human bronchial rings after passive sensitization using human serum containing high concentrations of IgE.