Intimal enlargement of pulmonary arteries is an early change in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The cellular and extracellular components that are involved in this enlargement are unknown. The present study was designed to characterize the structural changes occurring in pulmonary muscular arteries in the initial disease stages. Lung specimens from patients with moderate COPD (n=8; forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1), 66 +/- 10% predicted) and smokers without airflow obstruction (n=7; FEV1, 86 +/- 6% pred), were investigated by histochemistry to characterize extracellular matrix proteins and by immunohistochemistry to identify intrinsic cells of the vascular wall. In both COPD patients and smokers, the majority of cells present in the enlarged intimas were stained by specific smooth muscle cell (SMC) markers. No staining with endothelial or fibroblast markers was shown. A proportion of SMCs did not stain with desmin, suggesting cellular heterogeneity in this population. Elastin was the most abundant extracellular matrix protein and collagen was seen in a lower proportion. The amount of collagen was related to the intimal thickness (p<0.001). The findings demonstrated smooth muscle cell proliferation, as well as elastin and collagen deposition, in the thickened intimas of pulmonary arteries in moderate chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients and smokers, suggesting that these abnormalities may originate at an early stage in cigarette smoke-induced respiratory disease.