We evaluated the therapeutic efficacy of topical administration of SN50, an inhibitor of nuclear factor-kappaB, in a corneal alkali burn model in mice. An alkali burn was produced with 1 N NaOH in the cornea of C57BL/6 mice under general anesthesia. SN50 (10 microg/microl) or vehicle was topically administered daily for up to 12 days. The eyes were processed for histological or immunohistochemical examination after bromodeoxyuridine labeling or for semi-quantification of cytokine mRNA. Topical SN50 suppressed nuclear factor-kappaB activation in local cells and reduced the incidence of epithelial defects/ulceration in healing corneas. Myofibroblast generation, macrophage invasion, activity of matrix metalloproteinases, basement membrane destruction, and expression of cytokines were all decreased in treated corneas compared with controls. To elucidate the role of tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha in epithelial cell proliferation, we performed organ culture of mouse eyes with TNF-alpha, SN50, or an inhibitor of c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) and examined cell proliferation in healing corneal epithelium in TNF-alpha-/- mice treated with SN50. An acceleration of epithelial cell proliferation by SN50 treatment was found to depend on TNF-alpha/JNK signaling. In conclusion, topical application of SN50 is effective in treating corneal alkali burns in mice.