Therapeutic thoracic irradiation may induce two late pulmonary injury syndromes: radiation pneumonitis and subsequent pulmonary fibrosis. The alveolar macrophage has been considered a radioresistant cell and not a target cell involved in the pathogenesis of either type of radiation-induced lung injury. Alveolar macrophage-derived cytokines, including interleukin-1 (IL-1) and tumor necrosis factor (TNF), have been demonstrated to participate in inflammatory and fibrotic responses in the lung after various other types of lung injury. To evaluate whether the release of cytokines by alveolar macrophages is induced by radiation doses used clinically, alveolar macrophages recovered from nonsmoking volunteers were exposed in vitro to a single dose of 2 Gy and then maintained in culture for 18 h. Culture supernatants and cell lysates were then recovered and analyzed for IL-1α and IL-1β by radioimmunoassay. Supernatants of irradiated alveolar macrophages contained significantly increased amounts of IL-1α (P < 0.04) and IL-1β (P < 0.02) as well as total IL-1 (IL-1α and IL-1β) (P < 0.02) compared to nonirradiated alveolar macrophages. Cell lysates of irradiated alveolar macrophages also contained increased amounts of IL-1α and IL-1β, although differences from controls were not significant. The finding of increased release of IL-1 by alveolar macrophages after exposure to a single, clinically relevant dose of radiation suggests that the function of human alveolar macrophages is likely altered during therapeutic use of thoracic irradiation. Whether this release of IL-1 by alveolar macrophages contributes to early lung inflammation induced by thoracic irradiation is unclear.

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