A common characteristic of malignant cells derived from patients with Hodgkin's disease (HD) is a high level of constitutive nuclear NF-kappaB/Rel activity, which stimulates proliferation and confers resistance to apoptosis. We have analysed the mechanisms that account for NF-kappaB activation in a panel of Hodgkin/Reed-Sternberg (H-RS) cell lines. Whereas two cell lines (L428 and KMH-2) expressed inactive IkappaBalpha, no significant changes in NF-kappaB or IkappaB expression were seen in other H-RS cells (L591, L1236 and HDLM-2). Constitutive NF-kappaB was susceptible to inhibition by recombinant IkappaBalpha, suggesting that neither mutations in the NF-kappaB genes nor posttranslational modifications of NF-kappaB were involved. Endogenous IkappaBalpha was bound to p65 and displayed a very short half-life. IkappaBalpha degradation could be blocked by inhibitors of the NF-kappaB activating pathway. Proteasomal inhibition caused an accumulation of phosphorylated IkappaBalpha and a reduction of NF-kappaB activity in HDLM-2 and L1236 cells. By in vitro kinase assays we demonstrate constitutive IkappaB kinase (IKK) activity in H-RS cells, indicating ongoing signal transduction. Furthermore, H-RS cells secrete one or more factor(s) that were able to trigger NF-kappaB activation. We conclude that aberrant activation of IKK's, and in some cases defective IkappaBs, lead to constitutive nuclear NF-kappaB activity, which in turn results in a growth advantage of Hodgkin's disease tumor cells.