Neutrophils have the capacity to accumulate in high numbers in the lung during infection and inflammation. Because they play an important role in host defence against infection, but may also cause tissue injury, these cells are thought to be involved in the pathogenesis of various inflammatory lung disorders, including chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Neutrophil products that may mediate tissue injury at sites of neutrophil-dominated inflammation include the neutrophil serine proteinases elastase, cathepsin G and proteinase 3, and the nonenzymatic defensins. One of the targets of the neutrophil is the lung epithelium, and in vitro studies have revealed that both the serine proteinases and neutrophil defensins markedly affect the integrity of the epithelial layer, decrease the frequency of ciliary beat, increase the secretion of mucus, and induce the synthesis of epithelium-derived mediators that may influence the amplification and resolution of neutrophil-dominated inflammation. Both neutrophil elastase and defensins induce the release of the neutrophil chemoattractant chemokine interleukin-8 from respiratory epithelial cells. The alpha1-proteinase inhibitor (alpha1-PI) is a well-characterized inhibitor of neutrophil elastase, that also blocks the cytotoxic and stimulatory activity of defensins towards epithelial cells. The elastase inhibitory activity of alpha1-PI is also abrogated by the binding of defensins to this inhibitor. Incubation of epithelial cells with neutrophil defensins in combination with either elastase or cathepsin G resulted in decreased effects on the epithelial cells compared with those observed when the cells were incubated with defensins, elastase or cathepsin G separately. These results suggest that neutrophil defensins and serine proteinases cause injury and stimulate epithelial cells to produce chemokines that attract more neutrophils to the site of inflammation. The effects of neutrophil defensins and serine proteinases on epithelial cells appear to be restricted by proteinase inhibitors and by inhibitory interactions between these sets of neutrophil granule proteins.