Acid aspiration is a serious complication of anesthesia and other forms of unconsciousness that can result in the adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which continues to have a very high mortality despite our current therapeutic interventions. This type of injury damages the alveolar epithelium, principally alveolar type I cells, and requires proliferation of alveolar type II cells to restore gas exchange units. Since keratinocyte growth factor (KGF) has been shown to be a potent mitogen for alveolar type II cells, we evaluated whether intrabronchial administration of KGF would minimize lung injury due to the unilateral instillation of 0.1 N hydrochloric acid (HCl). Rats were pretreated or post-treated by intrabronchial instillation of KGF (5 mg/kg) into the left lung before HCl instillation. All rats receiving KGF at 48 or 72 h before HCl instillation survived for the 7-day observation period, whereas the mortality rate for those receiving HCl alone or saline followed by HCl was 31% and 33%, respectively. Pretreatment with KGF at 72 h but not at 24 or 48 h considerably ameliorated morphologic damage produced by HCl. Inflammatory cells in bronchoalveolar lavage were markedly decreased 3 and 7 days after HCl instillation by the 72-h KGF pretreatment. Pretreatment with KGF at 72 h also attenuated the reduction of total lung capacity, decreased the alpha 1(I) procollagen mRNA levels, and diminished hydroxyproline accumulation due to HCl instillation. Saline pretreatment at 72 h had no significant effect on the HCl injury and subsequent physiologic abnormalities. Our attempts to improve outcome with post-treatment instillation of KGF were unsuccessful. We conclude that KGF pretreatment reduces lung injury due to acid instillation and can prevent subsequent pulmonary fibrosis.