Keratinocyte growth factor (KGF), a potent growth factor for type II pneumocytes and Clara cells, has been shown to prevent the end-stage pulmonary fibrosis and mortality in a rat model of bleomycin-induced lung injury. In this study, protective effects of KGF were explored during the earlier course of bleomycin-induced lung injury by studying protein exudation in alveolar edema fluids, pulmonary expression of transforming growth factor-beta (TGF beta) and platelet-derived growth factor-BB (PDGF-BB), and changes in type II pneumocytes and Clara cells after i.t. (intratracheal) bleomycin injection following KGF- or saline-pretreatment in rats. Total protein in bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluids after bleomycin injury from KGF-pretreated rats was significantly lower than the levels in saline-pretreated rats. TGF beta protein in BAL fluids which peaked at day 3 after i.t. bleomycin in saline-pretreated lungs was not significantly increased at any time points in KGF-pretreated rats. PDGF-BB protein in whole lung tissues of KGF-pretreated rats also remained near normal throughout the course after i.t. bleomycin, in contrast to the significant increase in saline-pretreated rats. Numbers of type II pneumocytes and Clara cells in KGF-pretreated lungs after a high dose of bleomycin were close to the normal in intact lungs. At the same dose of bleomycin injury, type II pneumocytes in saline-pretreated lungs were markedly decreased, while the number of Clara cells in these rats was relatively preserved as the pre-injury level. In conclusion, KGF prevents bleomycin-induced end-stage pulmonary injury and mortality probably at least partly by decreasing protein-rich pulmonary edema, protein expression of fibrogenic cytokines TGF beta and PDGF-BB, and type II cell loss during the course of lung injury.