We have investigated the effect of interleukin 6 (IL-6) on the growth of vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMC) isolated from rat aortas. Murine recombinant IL-6 significantly increased the number of VSMC and stimulated tritiated thymidine incorporation into VSMC in a dose-dependent manner. The IL-6-induced thymidine incorporation into VSMC was totally inhibited by the Ca2+ channel blocker verapamil; however, IL-6 showed no effects on the intracellular Ca2+ level ([Ca2+]i) in VSMC. Antibody against platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF) also totally inhibited the IL-6-induced thymidine uptake. PDGF caused a significant increase in the [Ca2+]i, which was totally inhibited by verapamil. IL-6 mRNA was not detected in unstimulated "quiescent" VSMC, but its expression was stimulated by exposure of VSMC to 10% fetal bovine serum. Immunohistochemical study using anti-PDGF antibody showed that IL-6 stimulated PDGF production in VSMC. These results support the premise that IL-6 is released by VSMC in an autocrine manner and promotes the growth of VSMC via induction of endogenous PDGF production.