We assessed the effect of activated eosinophils isolated from human peripheral blood in causing contraction of explanted human bronchi in vitro. Sixty-three epithelium-intact fifth generation airway sections were obtained from 16 subjects undergoing lung resection for carcinoma. Eosinophils were isolated by negative immunoselection, and activation with 10(-7) M platelet-activating factor (PAF) was confirmed by measurements of eosinophil peroxidase (EPO) secretion and superoxide (O2-.) generation. EPO secretion increased from 68.6 +/- 13.4 ng/10(6) cells to 420 +/- 125 ng/10(6) cells after activation with PAF (P < 0.05). Similarly, PAF-induced O2-. generation increased from 15.3 +/- 4.64 nmol cytochrome c reduced/10(5) cells to 44.2 +/- 8.50 nmol cytochrome c reduced/10(5) cells (P < 0.05). Cells were instilled into an isolated airway pouch preparation, and, 60 min later, airway contractile responses were determined by optical micrometry as percent decrease in lumenal diameter (%decrease) and percent increase in wall thickness (%increase) using a calibrated magnifying lens. Treatment with either vehicle, PAF alone, or untreated eosinophils had no effect on airway caliber or thickness. PAF-activated cells caused a 30.5 +/- 1.52% decrease in airway caliber (P < 0.001 vs. untreated cells) and a 36.6 +/- 2.54% increase in wall thickness (P < 0.001 vs. untreated cells). Preincubation with A63162, a 5-lipoxygenase inhibitor, caused concentration-dependent inhibition of airway narrowing. After 10(-5) M A63162, decrease in airway diameter caused by PAF was 8.00 +/- 0.10% vs. 30.5 +/- 1.52% for PAF alone (P < 0.01).(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 250 WORDS)