The effect of human recombinant interleukin-4 (hrIL-4) on normal human adult dermal fibroblasts in terms of proliferation and IL-6 production was studied. Fibroblasts were exposed to different concentrations of IL-4 for various periods of time. Proliferation was measured using a [3H]thymidine incorporation assay. IL-6 production was measured at the transcriptional, protein, and functional levels by Northern blot analysis, radioimmunoassay, and B9 bioassay, respectively. Our results show that hrIL-4 significantly stimulated (two- to fivefold) fibroblasts to increase the incorporation of [3H]thymidine in a dose- and time-dependent manner. However, hrIL-1, hrIL-2, hrIL-5, or hrTNF alpha, at the same concentration (100 U/ml) and for the same time period (4 days), did not. In addition, IL-4 significantly induced (four- to eightfold) the production of immunoreactive and biologically functional IL-6. However, IL-4 was not as potent an inducer of IL-6 as IL-1. The IL-4-induced IL-6 production was dose and time dependent and was due, at least in part, to a dramatic increase in the steady-state levels of IL-6 mRNA. This is the first report describing the ability of IL-4 to activate human dermal fibroblasts in terms of proliferation and IL-6 production.