We investigated whether oxygen radicals generated during ischemia-reperfusion trigger postischemic inflammation in the heart. Closed-chest dogs underwent 90-min coronary artery occlusion, followed by 1- or 3-h reperfusion: 10 dogs received the cell-permeant oxygen radical scavenger N-(2-mercaptopropionyl)-glycine (MPG; 8 mg x kg(-1) x h(-1) intracoronary) beginning 5 min before reperfusion, and 9 dogs received vehicle. Blood flow (microspheres), intercellular adhesion molecule (ICAM)-1 protein expression (immunohistochemistry), ICAM-1 gene activation (Northern blotting), nuclear DNA binding activity of nuclear factor (NF)-kappaB and AP-1 (electrophoretic mobility shift assays), and neutrophil (PMN) accumulation (myeloperoxidase activity) were assessed in myocardial tissue samples. ICAM-1 protein expression was high in vascular endothelium after ischemia-reperfusion but was markedly reduced by MPG. MPG treatment also markedly decreased expression of ICAM-1 mRNA and tissue PMN accumulation. Nuclear DNA binding activities of NF-kappaB and AP-1, increased by ischemia-reperfusion, were both markedly decreased by MPG at 1 h of reperfusion. However, by 3 h, AP-1 activity was only modestly reduced by MPG and NF-kappaB activity was not significantly different from ischemic-reperfused controls. These results suggest that oxygen radicals generated in vivo during reperfusion trigger early activation of NF-kappaB and AP-1, resulting in upregulation of the ICAM-1 gene in vascular endothelium and subsequent tissue accumulation of activated PMNs.