Overcoming rapid inactivation of lung surfactant: Analogies between competitive adsorption and colloid stability

Joseph A. Zasadzinski, Patrick C. Stenger, Ian Shieh, Prajna Dhar

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


Lung surfactant (LS) is a mixture of lipids and proteins that line the alveolar air-liquid interface, lowering the interfacial tension to levels that make breathing possible. In acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), inactivation of LS is believed to play an important role in the development and severity of the disease. This review examines the competitive adsorption of LS and surface-active contaminants, such as serum proteins, present in the alveolar fluids of ARDS patients, and how this competitive adsorption can cause normal amounts of otherwise normal LS to be ineffective in lowering the interfacial tension. LS and serum proteins compete for the air-water interface when both are present in solution either in the alveolar fluids or in a Langmuir trough. Equilibrium favors LS as it has the lower equilibrium surface pressure, but the smaller proteins are kinetically favored over multi-micron LS bilayer aggregates by faster diffusion. If albumin reaches the interface, it creates an energy barrier to subsequent LS adsorption that slows or prevents the adsorption of the necessary amounts of LS required to lower surface tension. This process can be understood in terms of classic colloid stability theory in which an energy barrier to diffusion stabilizes colloidal suspensions against aggregation. This analogy provides qualitative and quantitative predictions regarding the origin of surfactant inactivation. An important corollary is that any additive that promotes colloid coagulation, such as increased electrolyte concentration, multivalent ions, hydrophilic non-adsorbing polymers such as PEG, dextran, etc. added to LS, or polyelectrolytes such as chitosan, also promotes LS adsorption in the presence of serum proteins and helps reverse surfactant inactivation. The theory provides quantitative tools to determine the optimal concentration of these additives and suggests that multiple additives may have a synergistic effect. A variety of physical and chemical techniques including isotherms, fluorescence microscopy, electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction show that LS adsorption is enhanced by this mechanism without substantially altering the structure or properties of the LS monolayer.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)801-828
Number of pages28
JournalBiochimica et Biophysica Acta - Biomembranes
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2010

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Alan Waring and Bill Taeusch for ongoing collaborations on surfactant chemistry, physics and physiology, and the Neotatal Intensive Care Unit at Cottage Hospital for supplies of Survanta. Support for this work comes from National Institute of Health Grant HL-51177 (JAZ, IS, PD). P.C.S. was partially supported by an NSF graduate research fellowship.


  • Albumin
  • Charge reversal
  • Chitosan
  • Debye length
  • Depletion attraction
  • Inhibition
  • Polyethylene glycol


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