Chinese herbal remedy Tripterygium wilfordii Hook. f. (TWHF) has been reported to be therapeutically efficacious in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), but its in vivo actions have not been clarified. The purpose of this study was to investigate the effects of triptolide, a diterpenoid triepoxide extracted from TWHF, on inflammation and cartilage destruction in collagen-induced arthritis (CIA) model mice. Histological examination demonstrated that triptolide significantly reduced the inflammatory responses and cartilage damage in the joint tissues. Interestingly, triptolide interfered with CIA-augmented expression of matrix metalloproteinases-13 and -3, which are considered to be key enzymes in the pathological destruction of cartilage, and simultaneously augmented CIA-reduced tissue inhibitors of metalloproteinases-1 and -2 expression in the joints. Moreover, triptolide inhibited prostaglandin E(2) production via selective suppression of the production and gene expression of cyclooxygenase (COX)-2, but not COX-1. The levels of interleukin (IL)-1beta, tumor necrosis factor alpha and IL-6 were also decreased by triptolide in the joint tissues and sera as well as the suppression of CIA-mediated expression of their mRNAs in the joints. In addition, triptolide treatment in vivo was able to reduce an abundance of nuclear factor-kappaB, the transcriptional factor closely related to the inflammatory process, in articular cartilage and synovium in CIA mice. These results suggest that triptolide exerts novel chondroprotective and anti-inflammatory effects on RA, and the therapeutic action of TWHF on RA is, in part, due to the triptolide activities.