Oncostatin M (OSM) is a multifunctional cytokine, a member of the interleukin-6/leukemia inhibitory factor (IL-6/LIF) family, that can regulate a number of connective-tissue cell types in vitro including cartilage and synovial tissue-derived fibroblasts, however its role in joint inflammation in vivo is not clear. We have analyzed murine OSM (muOSM) activity in vitro and in vivo in mouse joint tissue, to determine the potential role of this cytokine in local joint inflammation and pathology. The effects of muOSM and other IL-6/LIF cytokines on mouse synovial fibroblast cultures were assessed in vitro and showed induction of monocyte chemotactic protein-1, interleukin-6, and tissue inhibitor metalloproteinase-1, as well as enhancement of colony growth in soft agarose culture. Other IL-6/LIF cytokines including IL-6, LIF, or cardiotrophin-1, did not have such effects when tested at relatively high concentrations (20 ng/ml). To assess effects of muOSM in articular joints in vivo, we used recombinant adenovirus expressing muOSM cDNA (AdmuOSM) and injected purified recombinant virus (10(6) to 10(8) pfu) intra-articularly into the knees of various mouse strains. Histological analysis revealed dramatic alterations in the synovium but not in synovium of knees treated with the control virus Ad-dl70 or knees treated with Adm-IL-6 encoding biologically active murine IL-6. AdmuOSM effects were characterized by increases in the synovial cell proliferation, infiltration of mononuclear cells, and increases in extracellular matrix deposition that were evident at day 4, but much more marked at days 7, 14, and 21 after administration. The synovium took on characteristics similar to pannus and appeared to contact and invade cartilage. Collectively, these results provide good evidence that OSM regulates synovial fibroblast function differently than other IL-6-type cytokines, and can induce a proliferative invasive phenotype of synovium in vivo in mice on overexpression. We suggest that OSM may contribute to pathology in arthritis.