The spot-ELISA technique has been used to enumerate the frequency of cells secreting tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) and interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma), isolated from biopsies of normal intestine and from biopsies of children with inflammatory bowel disease. TNF-alpha production was undetectable in six out of 12 biopsies from normal intestine and in the other six biopsies it ranged from 60 to 580 TNF-alpha-secreting cells/10(6) isolated intestinal cells. In contrast, cells isolated from biopsies of children with Crohn's disease (n = 9) all showed elevated frequencies of TNF-alpha-secreting cells (500-12,000 secreting cells/10(6) cells). In ulcerative colitis, four out of eight children had increased production of TNF-alpha and in children with indeterminate colitis two out of three had elevated levels. There was no correlation between plasma TNF-alpha levels and the number of intestinal cells secreting TNF-alpha. In controls and all groups of patients IFN-gamma-secreting cells were uncommon. These results suggest that TNF-alpha is an important mediator of inflammation in the human gut, and, furthermore, may play a role in the growth failure frequently seen in children with inflammatory bowel disease.