We have previously reported that in acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), nonsurvivors have persistent elevation in pulmonary and circulating proinflammatory cytokine levels over time and a high rate of nosocomial infections antemortem. In these patients, none of the proven or suspected nosocomial infections caused a transient or sustained increase in plasma proinflammatory cytokine levels above preinfection values. We hypothesized that cytokines secreted by the host during ARDS may favor the growth of bacteria. We conducted an in vitro study of the growth of three bacteria clinically relevant in nosocomial infections, evaluating their in vitro response to various concentrations of tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha, interleukin (IL)-1beta, and IL-6. We found that all three bacterial species showed concentration-dependent growth enhancement when incubated with one or more tested cytokines and that blockade by specific neutralizing cytokine MoAb significantly inhibited cytokine-induced growth. When compared with control, the 6-h growth response (cfu/ml) was maximal with IL-1beta at 1,000 pg for Staphylococcus aureus (36 +/- 16 versus 377 +/- 16; p = 0.0001) and Acinetobacter spp. (317 +/- 1,147 versus 1,124 +/- 147; p = 0.002) and with IL-6 at 1,000 pg for Pseudomonas aeruginosa (99 +/- 50 versus 509 +/- 50; p = 0.009). The effects of cytokines were seen only with fresh isolates and were lost with passage in vitro on bacteriologic medium without added cytokines. In this study we provide additional evidence for a newly described pathogenetic mechanism for bacterial proliferation in the presence of exaggerated and protracted inflammation.