[en] BACKGROUND: Tryptase is a serine endoprotease selectively released from mast cells. Although mast cells are known to be activated after experimental allergic provocation, their role in naturally occurring asthma is still debated. METHODS: We have investigated the levels of tryptase in the whole induced sputum collected from 51 asthmatics (31 atopic and 20 intrinsic) seen in our outpatient clinic and 22 normal nonatopic healthy volunteers. Tryptase was measured by a new immunoassay based on B12 monoclonal antibody recognition of total tryptase (UniCAP System, Pharmacia) with a sensitivity of 1 ng/ml. RESULTS: While being below the threshold of detection in all normal volunteers, tryptase was detectable in the sputum from 9/51 asthmatics (18%) including five atopic and four intrinsic asthma cases. In these patients, among whom three were asymptomatic asthmatics, the values ranged between 1 and 6.1 ng/ml. The asthmatics with detectable sputum tryptase had greater sputum eosinophil counts (P<0.05) but lower neutrophil counts (P<0.05) than those in whom tryptase was undetectable. When compared to control subjects, asthmatics without tryptase had still greater eosinophil counts (P<0.0001) but also raised neutrophil counts (P<0.05). No significant difference could be found between asthmatics with tryptase and those without tryptase with respect to the age, the baseline lung function, the methacholine bronchial responsiveness, and the frequency of treatment with inhaled steroids. CONCLUSIONS: With the UniCAP System, tryptase was detectable in the sputum from 18% of asthmatics irrespective of atopy and current symptoms. Asthmatics with tryptase appeared to have a selective increase in sputum eosinophil counts while those without tryptase displayed a mixed sputum granulocyte infiltration with raised eosinophil and neutrophil counts.