Our objective was to clarify the heterogeneity in response to infliximab treatment in rheumatoid arthritis (RA); to this end, a bioassay was designed to explore the contribution of circulating tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha bioactivity and its possible link to response. The bioassay is based on the induction of IL-6 and osteoprotegerin (OPG) production by synoviocytes in response to TNF-alpha. RA synoviocytes were cultured with TNF-alpha (5 ng/ml) and 42 RA plasma samples collected just before starting therapy. Levels of IL-6 and OPG were measured in supernatants. In 20 of the patients, plasma samples collected before and 4 hours after the first and the ninth infusions were tested in the same way. Plasma concentrations of TNF-alpha and p55 and p75 soluble receptors were measured using ELISA. TNF-alpha induced IL-6 and OPG production by synoviocytes, which was further increased with patient plasma dilutions and inhibited by infliximab. With plasma samples obtained before the first infusion, the IL-6-induced production was greater in patients with a good clinical response than in the poor responders (44.4 +/- 23.3 ng/ml versus 27.4 +/- 20.9 ng/ml; P = 0.05). This high circulating TNF-alpha bioactivity was strongly inhibited with the first infliximab infusion. The difference between IL-6 levels induced with plasma samples obtained before and 4 hours after the first infusion was greater in patients with a good clinical response (40.0 +/- 23.7 ng/ml versus 3.4 +/- 10.0 ng/ml; P = 0.001). Similar findings were obtained for OPG production (7.0 +/- 6.2 ng/ml versus 0.0 +/- 3.0 ng/ml; P < 0.05). Levels of circulating TNF-alpha bioactivity were predictive of clinical response to TNF-alpha inhibition, confirming a key role for TNF-alpha in these RA patients.