Defense mechanisms of the respiratory membranes

G. M. Green, G. J. Jakab, R. B. Low, G. S. Davis

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

231 Scopus citations


The success or failure of pulmonary defense mechanisms largely determines the appearance of clinical lung disease. The lung is protected by interlocking systems of nonspecific and specific defenses. Inhaled substances can be isolated by mechanical barriers or can be physically removed from the lung either by transport up the bronchial mucociliary escalator or by transport through interstitial and lymphatic channels leading to lymph nodes. Substances can be locally detoxified within the lung by interaction with secretory proteins, such as antibodies, or by neutralization and dissolution within phagocytic cells. The pulmonary alveolar macrophage is the central figure in the protection of the respiratory membrane, operating in all 3 of the nonspecific modes of defense and augmented by specific immunologic mechanisms as well. Alterations in macrophage function and physiology may be crucial in determining the effectiveness of pulmonary defense. Recent advances in the biology of the alveolar macrophage have led to a greater understanding of its complex function. The multiple origins of macrophages from local and circulating cell pools and the variability in their fate and lifespan reflect the multi-faceted role of this cell. The importance of the interactions between macrophages, other lung cells, and other defense mechanisms has become increasingly clear. Apart from its function as a resident defender of the alveolus, the macrophage is an important effector of the pulmonary immune response and plays a key role in the pathogenesis of a wide variety of inflammatory, destructive, and fibrotic lung diseases. Humoral and cell-mediated immune responses amplify and direct lung defenses against infection and may also participate in protection against other agents. Immunoglobulin A and G, microbial neutralizing and opsonizing antibodies, and macrophage-stimulating T lymphocytes are the major immunospecific forms of lung defense. Infectious agents, cigarette smoke, air pollutants, industrial dusts, and a spectrum of coexistent disease states may impair pulmonary defense mechanisms and increase susceptibility to acute and chronic respiratory diseases. A thorough understanding of the ways in which the lung protects itself against the daily assault of infectious, toxic, and immunogenic materials should lead to a better understanding of the pathogenesis and consequences of lung disease and to better clinical care of the patient with respiratory disease. (352 references).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)479-514
Number of pages36
JournalAmerican Review of Respiratory Disease
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1977
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pulmonary and Respiratory Medicine


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