Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) is a secretory product of normal macrophages that can cause cell necrosis, new blood vessel formation and thrombosis. These are also 3 characteristic features of the progression of stable atheroma to endothelial disruption. Accordingly, an immunohistochemical method was developed to detect TNF in human tissue. Using this method TNF positivity was demonstrated in 57 of 65 (88%) of tissue sections classified as atherosclerotic and in 5 of 11 (45%) sections classified as minimally atherosclerotic. TNF was absent in 6 sections classified as normal. TNF positivity was found not only in the cytoplasm of macrophages, but also in the cytoplasm and attached to the cell membrane of smooth muscle cells and endothelial cells of the human atheroma. Because TNF is known to cause new vessel formation, hemorrhagic necrosis and increased thrombogenicity, it may play a role in the evolution of uncomplicated to complex atheroma.