Although progression to pulmonary fibrosis in preterm infants with respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) is related to the inflammatory response, the nature of this response remains controversial. We have therefore performed sequential bronchoalveolar lavages in 30 infants with RDS (13 of whom developed bronchopulmonary dysplasia) and 7 ventilated control infants, characterizing the cells obtained by immunohistochemical analysis of lineage-specific markers and assaying macrophage-associated chemokines and cytokines in supernatant fluid. At all ages from birth, lavage supernatants demonstrated highly significant increase over controls of the beta-chemokine macrophage inflammatory protein (MIP)-1 alpha, although not of regulated upon activation, normal T cell expressed and secreted (RANTES), of the cytokines tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha and IL-1 beta, and of elastase/alpha-1 antitrypsin. Significantly higher concentrations of MIP-1 alpha in particular were associated with the later development of fibrosis. Increased numbers of macrophages expressing the activation marker RM/3-1 were found at all ages in bronchopulmonary dysplasic infants, whereas neutrophil numbers were increased from d 3. Dexamethasone administered to 10 infants induced rapid decrease in inflammatory cell numbers and concentrations of MIP-1 alpha, tumor necrosis factor-alpha, IL-1 beta, and elastase/alpha-1 antitrypsin. The inflammatory response in neonatal RDS begins within the first day of life. Long-term outcome is associated with the magnitude of this early response, in particular production of MIP-1 alpha. The early introduction of specific therapy is thus likely to be beneficial.