The acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) frequently results in a fibroproliferative response that precludes effective alveolar repair. Transforming growth factor-alpha (TGF-alpha), a potent epithelial and mesenchymal cell mitogen, may modulate the response to lung injury. In this study, we determined whether bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) concentrations of TGF-alpha are increased during the first 2 wk after the onset of ARDS and, if so, whether increased TGF-alpha levels in lavage fluid are associated with increased levels of procollagen peptide III (PCP III), a biological marker of fibroproliferation, and with increased fatality rates. We enrolled 74 consecutive patients with ARDS prospectively identified on admission to the intensive care unit of a tertiary care hospital, and 11 patients with chronic interstitial lung disease. Thirteen healthy volunteers served as control subjects. TGF-alpha concentrations were measured in BALF recovered on Days 3, 7, and 14 after the onset of ARDS (total of 130 lavage samples). TGF-alpha was detected in the lavage fluid of 90% of patients with ARDS (67 of 74), and in 100% of patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) (10 of 10), but in none of 13 normal volunteers. At each day tested, the median lavage TGF-alpha level of patients with ARDS was significantly higher than that of normals. The overall fatality rate was 45% (33 of 74 patients). In a univariate analysis, the median TGF-alpha levels in nonsurvivors were 1.5-fold higher at Day 7 (p = 0.06) and 1.8-fold higher at Day 14 (p = 0.048). The fatality rate was 4 times higher (CI 1.6, 17.5) for patients with both increased lavage TGF-alpha and PCP III concentrations at Day 7 than for patients with low TGF-alpha and PCP III values, indicating a synergistic relationship between TGF-alpha and PCP III. We conclude that increased levels of TGF-alpha in BALF are common in patients with ARDS and that lavage TGF-alpha is associated with a marker of the fibroproliferative response in sustained ARDS.