Recent data have suggested that certain growth factors and cytokines are involved in the development of diabetic nephropathy. The aim of this study was to investigate whether circulating transforming growth factor beta 1 (TGF-beta1) and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) are associated with diabetic kidney disease. Serum levels of active and total TGF-beta1 and TNF-alpha were measured in type 2 diabetic patients with nephropathy (n = 23) or without (n = 35) and normoglycemic controls (n = 12). Serum levels of circulating active TGF-beta1 were significantly higher in patients with diabetic nephropathy (0.43 +/- 0.06 ng x mL(-1)) compared with diabetic patients without renal involvement (0.23 +/- 0.03 ng x mL(-1), P = .002) and healthy controls (0.24 +/- 0.03 ng x mL(-1), P= .001), whereas the levels of total (active + latent) TGF-beta1 were not different between the subgroups. Active TGF-beta1 concentrations were correlated with urinary albumin excretion (r = .49, P < .003) and serum creatinine (r= .55, P < .01). Sera from patients with type 2 diabetes contained significantly more TNF-alpha than sera from normoglycemic controls (3.07 +/- 0.24 v 1.65 +/- 0.20 pg x mL(-1), P = .001). However, the comparison of serum TNF-alpha concentrations between microalbuminuric and normoalbuminuric diabetic patients showed no significant difference (3.21 +/- 0.28 v 2.97 +/- 0.34 pg x mL(-1), P = .12). In conclusion, type 2 diabetic patients with diabetic nephropathy exhibit increased activation of TGF-beta1, in serum, suggesting an association between circulating TGF-beta1 activity and the development of renal disease.