As part of the blood-retina barrier, the neuroectodermally-derived retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) monolayer is strategically positioned to interact with circulating leukocytes and regulate their access to the retina. We, therefore, studied whether human RPE cells express intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1), a specialized cell surface glycoprotein that binds the leukocyte function antigen-1 receptor present on all leukocytes. Using specific monoclonal antibody to ICAM-1, immunohistochemical staining of freshly-isolated primary and fourth passaged human RPE cells resulted in delicate reaction product that increased dramatically upon exposure to human recombinant (r) interferon-gamma (rIFN-gamma), interleukin-1-beta (rIL-1 beta), or tumor necrosis factor-alpha (rTNF-alpha). Fluorescence-activated cell sorting analysis demonstrated 2-fold increases in constitutive RPE ICAM-1 expression within 6 hours of exposure to physiologic concentrations of rIFN-gamma, rIL-1 beta, or rTNF-alpha. In standardized leukocyte adherence assays, cultured RPE cells showed avid binding of neutrophils that increased significantly after stimulation with rIFN-gamma, rIL-1 beta, or rTNF-alpha (p less than 0.001). In parallel assays, monoclonal antibody to either ICAM-1 on RPE cells, or subunits of leukocyte function antigen-1 receptors on leukocytes significantly blocked leukocyte binding to unstimulated (p less than 0.001) or rIFN-gamma-stimulated RPE cells (p less than 0.001). To demonstrate RPE ICAM-1 expression in intact human tissue, fresh uveoretinal explants were exposed to rIFN-gamma, rIL-1 beta, or rTNF-alpha and stained using mAb to ICAM-1. Tissue sections of cytokine-stimulated explants revealed dramatic increases in RPE ICAM-1 immunoreactivity over the low levels observed in unstimulated uveoretinal tissue. Our results indicate that: (a) ICAM-1 is expressed at low levels on unstimulated RPE cells, (b) RPE ICAM-1 may be augmented by inflammatory cytokines, and (c) RPE ICAM-1 is a functional receptor mediating leukocyte binding. ICAM-1 on RPE cells at the blood-retina barrier may regulate leukocytic infiltration in ocular diseases in which leukocytes are important pathogenetically and may be important to the generation of ocular immune responses.