Chronic airways inflammation is one of the features of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). We demonstrated previously that bronchiolar epithelium in COPD contains increased numbers of macrophages and mast cells. Transforming growth factor beta1 (TGF-beta1) may be involved in this influx because it has chemotactic activity for macrophages and mast cells. In this study, we examined expression patterns of TGF-beta1, TGF-beta receptors type I and II (TGF-betaRI and TGF-betaRII) by immunohistochemistry and mRNA in situ hybridization in peripheral lung tissue of 14 current or ex-smokers with COPD (FEV1 < 75%) and 14 without COPD (FEV1 > 84%). In both groups, TGF-beta1 and its receptors are present in airway and alveolar epithelial cells, airway and vascular smooth muscle cells, and tissue and alveolar CD68(+) cells (considered herein to be macrophages). In subjects with COPD, a semiquantitative analysis revealed approximately twofold higher levels of TGF-beta1 mRNA and protein in bronchiolar and alveolar epithelium (p < 0.02) as compared with subjects without COPD. With regard to bronchiolar epithelial cells, we found a significant correlation between TGF-beta1 mRNA and protein expression (r = 0.62; p < 0.002), and between the FEV1 of all subjects together and TGF-beta1 protein (r = -0.60; p < 0.0002) and mRNA (r = -0.67; p < 0. 002) levels. The epithelial expression of TGF-beta1 mRNA and TGF-beta1 protein correlates with the number of intraepithelial macrophages (both: r = 0.44; p < 0.03) whereas intraepithelial mast cell numbers correlate with epithelial TGF-beta1 mRNA expression. These data suggest a role for TGF-beta1 in recruiting macrophages into the airway epithelium in COPD.