Activin, and its binding protein, follistatin, are up-regulated by mediators of inflammation, and recent studies have demonstrated that activin A can block the activity of the key inflammatory cytokine, interleukin-6 (IL-6). These findings thereby implicate activin and follistatin in the control of the inflammatory cascade. In this study, interactions between interleukin-1beta (IL-1beta), IL-6 and activin were examined the human liver cell line, HepG2, for their effect on cell proliferation and the production of the acute phase proteins, haptoglobin and alpha1-acid glycoprotein (alpha1-AGP). IL-1beta and activin A, but not IL-6, inhibited the proliferation of HepG2 cells. Activin A together with IL-1beta caused a greater inhibition of proliferation than either factor alone, and the inhibitory effects of activin A were blocked by the addition of follistatin to the cultures. Activin A alone inhibited the production of haptoglobin but did not affect alpha1-AGP concentrations. However, activin A suppressed the stimulatory effects of IL-6 on the production of both haptoglobin and alpha1-AGP. Production of follistatin by HepG2 cells was stimulated by activin A, but was inhibited by both IL-1beta and IL-6, indicating a complex regulatory loop is operable to modulate the effects of activin A during inflammation. Taken together, these data suggest that activin A interacts with IL-1beta and IL-6 to regulate and coordinate the production of acute phase proteins during an inflammatory episode.