Whereas nitric oxide (NO) production is associated with the toxic effect of cytokines on rodent pancreatic beta-cells, cytokine-induced apoptosis in human islets may occur independently of NO. The cysteine protease interleukin (IL)-1 converting enzyme (ICE) is a key proapoptotic caspase. Our aim was therefore to analyze the effect of cytokines on ICE expression in human, rat, and mouse islets and rat insulinoma cells. ICE messenger RNA (mRNA) expression was highly up-regulated after 6-, 24-, and 72-h exposure of human islets to interferon (IFN)gamma, tumor necrosis factor (TNF)alpha + IFNgamma or IL-1beta + TNFalpha + IFNgamma, paralleled by increased iNOS (the inducible form of NO synthase) expression and NO production after exposure to the combined cytokines but not to IFNgamma or TNFalpha + IFNgamma. Cytokine-induced NO-independent ICE transcription was confirmed using iNOS inhibitors. Exposure of rat and mouse islets, or rat insulinoma cells, for 24 h to IFNgamma alone or in combination with the two other cytokines also resulted in a highly significant ICE mRNA expression. ICE transcription was not inducible in islets from IFN regulatory factor-1 knock-out mice, suggesting a key-role of this transcription-factor in cytokine-mediated ICE expression in pancreatic islets. In conclusion, cytokines and IFNgamma in particular increase ICE mRNA expression in pancreatic islet cells and beta-cell lines, independently of NO synthesis, suggesting that ICE up-regulation may be involved in cytokine-induced NO-independent apoptosis of human islets.