Remodeling of the airways, as occurs in asthmatic patients, is associated with the continual presence of inflammatory mediators and Th2 cytokines, especially interleukin (IL)-13, during cycles of epithelial injury and repair. In this study, we examined the effect of IL-13 on well-differentiated normal human bronchial epithelial (NHBE) cells maintained in air-liquid interface culture. IL-13 induced proliferation of NHBE cells after 24 h exposure, as reflected by [(3)H]thymidine uptake and cell counts. The effects of IL-13 were mediated through the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), as proliferation was attenuated by AG1478, an EGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitor. Proliferation appeared to be mediated by transforming growth factor (TGF)-alpha, a potent ligand for EGFR, which was released rapidly from NHBE cells in response to IL-13. Neutralizing antibody to TGF-alpha, but not antibodies against other potentially important growth factors (EGF, heparin binding epidermal growth factor-like growth factor [HB-EGF], platelet-derived growth factor [PDGF]), inhibited the mitogenic response to IL-13. This study provides the first experimental evidence that IL-13 can initiate a proliferative response of human airway epithelium in the absence of inflammatory cells or other cell types. The results are consistent with a mechanism whereby IL-13 induces release of TGF-alpha from the epithelial cells, which in turn binds via an autocrine/paracrine-type action to the EGFR, initiating proliferation. IL-13-induced airway remodeling in vivo may involve this epithelium-driven response.