Reactive oxygen species (ROS) have been implicated in the pathogenesis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), while antioxidant enzymes, such as extracellular superoxide dismutase (EC-SOD) and catalase, block radical-induced events. The present study tested if the ex vivo transfer of EC-SOD and catalase genes alone or in combination in the knee joint of rats with monoarticular antigen-induced arthritis (AIA) was anti-inflammatory, and examined the potential mechanisms involved. Synoviocytes isolated from female Wistar rats were immortalized with a retroviral vector SUV19.5. These cells were permanently transfected with an EC-SOD expression plasmid (pEC-SODZeo) or a catalase expression plasmid (pCatalaseZeo) to create cells overexpressing EC-SOD or catalase, as measured by RT-PCR and Western blots. The cells were engrafted in knee joints of animals at the time of the induction of AIA. Three gene transfer groups, an EC-SOD group, a catalase group and a combined therapy group (EC-SOD and catalase) were included in these experiments. Animals in the control group were engrafted with synoviocytes transfected with the plasmid pZeoSV2 without an insert. Clinical and histological assessments were performed, as well as tissue measurements of SOD, catalase and gelatinase activities. Ex vivo gene transfer of EC-SOD and catalase into rat knee joints produced about a six- to seven-fold increase in EC-SOD activity and a two- to three-fold increase in catalase activity compared with the control animals. Rats treated with cells overexpressing EC-SOD, catalase or a combination of EC-SOD and catalase showed significant suppression of knee joint swelling, decreased infiltration of inflammatory cells within the synovial membrane and reduced gelatinase activity in knee joints, compared with animals receiving cells transfected with the plasmid alone. No statistically significant difference was found between the groups treated with cells overexpressing EC-SOD, catalase or a combination of both. Gene therapy involving the local intra-articular overexpression of two antioxidant enzymes, EC-SOD and catalase, was anti-inflammatory in AIA. One mechanism appears to be the suppression of gelatinase activities by both EC-SOD and catalase.