Experimental studies in vitro suggest that cytokines are important mediators in the pathogenesis of autoimmune insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM). However, there is little evidence for the role of cytokines in vivo, either in humans or in the spontaneous animal models of IDDM such as the NOD mouse or BB rat. To address this question, we used the model of cyclophosphamide (CYP)-induced autoimmune diabetes in the NOD/Wehi mouse to examine for (a) the production of IFN-gamma and IL-6 from isolated islets, and (b) the effect of anti IFN-gamma or anti IL-6 monoclonal antibodies on the development of diabetes. After cyclophosphamide, the majority of these mice develop of mononuclear cell infiltrate (insulitis) which by 10-14 d is associated with beta cell destruction. IFN-gamma activity at low levels (2.7 +/- 0.3 U/ml) could be detected only in culture supernatants from islets isolated at day 7 post-cyclophosphamide. In contrast, IL-6 activity progressively increased from 457 +/- 44 U/ml at day 0 to 6,020 +/- 777 U/ml at day 10. Culture of islets with anti-CD3 monoclonal antibody resulted in a significant increase in IFN-gamma activity from 41 +/- 7 U/ml at day 0 to 812 +/- 156 U/ml at day 10. Mice given either anti-IFN-gamma or anti-IL-6 antibody had a significantly reduced (P less than 0.001) incidence of diabetes and especially with IFN-gamma, decreased severity of insulitis. We conclude that IFN-gamma and IL-6 have essential roles in the pathogenesis of pancreatic islet beta cell destruction in this model.