The rate of transfer of a hydrophilic solute from the alveoli to pulmonary blood following inhalation as an aerosol depends on the molecular size of the solute and the permeability of the alveolar epithelium. The value of this measurement for assessing damage to the epithelium in lung disease is compromised by cigarette smoking, which accelerates clearance by unknown mechanisms. The rates of clearance of 99mTc-labelled diethylenetriaminepenta-acetic acid (DTPA) (molecular mass 492 Da) and 113mIn-labelled biotinylated DTPA (B-DTPA) (molecular mass 1215 Da) were monitored simultaneously by dynamic γ-radiation camera imaging following simultaneous inhalation, and compared between eight normal non-smoking subjects and nine habitual cigarette smokers. The clearance rates of DTPA were 0.95 (S.D. 0.39)%/min in non-smokers and 4.13 (1.06) %/min in smokers. These were about twice the clearance rates of B-DTPA, which in the corresponding groups were 0.41 (0.26) and 2.12 (0.72)%/min respectively. The ratio of the B-DTPA/DTPA clearance rates was, in all subjects, less than the ratio (0.74) of the cube roots of the molecular masses of the solutes, assumed to correspond to the ratio of their free diffusion coefficients in water, and was not significantly different between smokers and non-smokers. As alveolar permeability increased, the ratio of clearance rates in the entire population showed a significant trend to increase in a non-linear fashion towards the value corresponding to the ratio of the free diffusion coefficients. We conclude that the diffusion of at least the larger of these two solutes through the pulmonary alveolar epithelium is restricted (i.e. associated with a reflection coefficient greater than zero). Cigarette smoking, however, does not appear to cause a loss of this restriction, and may increase solute clearance by other mechanisms, such as reducing fluid volume within the alveolus, thereby raising the local radiotracer concentration, or increasing the number of pores available for solute exchange without affecting pore size. Conversely, if restriction was lost in lung disease, the ratio of the clearance rates of two solutes of dissimilar sizes could be used to detect disease in smokers as well as non-smokers.

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