BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVES: The epithelium and airway smooth muscles of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or bronchial asthma undergo certain structural changes that are probably related to increased expression of inflammatory molecules and cell growth factors. Studying the relation between disease and changes in bronchial smooth muscle is difficult if investigation is restricted to samples from autopsies or thoracotomies. This study was designed to evaluate the probability of obtaining bronchial smooth muscle by endoscopic bronchial biopsy in patients with COPD and from individuals with normal lung function, the relation of disease to bronchial epithelial histology, and the potential usefulness of studying airway muscle remodeling events. METHODS: Forty-two patients undergoing diagnostic fiberoptic bronchoscopy were enrolled. Bronchial biopsies were taken systematically from the lobar and segmental dividing ridges. The epithelial structure was analyzed by conventional histology. The smooth muscle was identified by immunohistochemistry (anti-desmin antibody assay) and Western-blot analysis (anti-desmin, actin and myosin antibodies). RESULTS: Sixty-nine percent of the biopsies contained bronchial smooth muscle. The probability of obtaining smooth muscle was higher in segmental than in lobar biopsies (72 vs 30%, p < 0.05). This probability was unrelated to the presence of COPD or to signs of epithelial inflammation. The fragments allowed us to use electrophoresis to identify protein structures (myosin, actin, desmin) involved in muscle remodeling processes. CONCLUSIONS: Endoscopic biopsy of the bronchi allows us to obtain bronchial smooth muscle samples in a large percentage of patients, particularly when performed on segmental bronchi. The technique may be useful for future studies examining the processes of airway smooth muscle remodeling.