Lung morphology and surfactant function in cardiogenic pulmonary edema: a narrative review

Kenneth Nugent, Logan Dobbe, Rubayat Rahman, Mohamed Elmassry, Pablo Paz


The conventional analysis of acute cardiogenic pulmonary edema involves the development of high pulmonary capillary pressures resulting in hydrostatic gradients for fluid flux out of capillaries into the interstitial space and alveolar spaces. However, some patients respond poorly to diuretic management. The PubMed database was searched to identify experimental studies on pulmonary edema in animals, experimental studies on surfactant function, including patients with pulmonary edema, and clinical studies reporting barrier dysfunction and/or injury in patients with acute pulmonary edema. Studies with animal models demonstrate that high capillary pressures can cause barrier disruption in alveolar capillary units which increases permeability and the transfer of fluid and protein into lung parenchyma. Fluid in alveolar spaces alters surfactant function which increases fluid flux out of capillaries into the lung parenchyma secondary to larger transcapillary hydrostatic gradients. Patients with acute cardiogenic pulmonary edema have increased levels of surfactant protein B in their plasma which reflect barrier disruption and increased levels of tumor necrosis factor alpha which reflect acute tissue injury. Increased surfactant protein B plasma levels are associated with abnormal gas exchange in patients with chronic heart failure. Patients with exercise-induced left ventricular dysfunction have increased levels of surfactant protein B after short periods of exercise. Pathology studies in patients with chronic heart failure have found increased connective tissue in alveolar capillary units and increased numbers of type II alveolar cells, and these changes represent an adaptive response in these patients. Clinicians need to consider the possibility of barrier dysfunction and disruption in patients with both acute and chronic pulmonary edema and understand that diuresis may have a limited effect on symptoms in some patients.