1. Research into the pathogenesis of acute and chronic neonatal lung disease has been hampered by the lack of a suitable small-animal model of prematurity. We describe such a model that has been developed and validated in the guinea-pig.

2. Pre-term guinea-pigs delivered by Caesarian section at 65 days gestation (normal gestation 68 days) exhibited transient respiratory distress. The survival of pre-term animals was lower than that of term animals after exposure to 95% O2 (pre-term 42% versus term 79% at 96 h, P < 0.05).

3. Pulmonary histology in pre-term animals exposed to both 21% O2 and 95% O2 revealed evidence of acute lung injury with atelectasis, pulmonary oedema, fibrin deposition and inflammatory cell infiltration. No evidence of lung injury was observed in term animals exposed to 21% O2, whereas those exposed to 95% O2 showed a similar, but less pronounced, injury to that seen in preterm pups.

4. The protein concentration in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid was similar in pre-term and term animals exposed to 95% O2, but neutrophil numbers in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid tended to be greater in preterm pups.

5. Elastase-like activity, measured against succinyl-1-trialanine p-nitroanilide, was higher in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid from control pre-term animals compared with that from control term animals. Exposure to 95% O2 increased the elastase-like activity significantly in both groups. The majority of the elastase-like activity was EDTA-sensitive and thus is possibly due to metallo-elastase. Fractionation of bronchoalveolar lavage fluid indicated that the elastase-like activity was associated with a high-molecular-mass complex. Lipase treatment reduced the activity of this fraction and generated a new 40 kDa fraction.

6. We conclude that the pre-term guinea-pig is more susceptible than the term animal to lung injury after O2 exposure and thus represents a appropriate small-animal model in which to investigate the pathogenesis of acute and chronic lung injury in the pre-term infant.

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