Patients with cystic fibrosis suffer from a chronic, progressively destructive bronchitis characterized by colonization of the airways by Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Cell wall lipopolysaccharides from P. aeruginosa may stimulate secretion of cytokines such as tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF alpha) by monocytes/macrophages. We found elevated levels of TNF alpha (150 +/- 60 pg/ml), interleukin-1 alpha (144 +/- 205 pg/ml), and interleukin-1 beta (62 +/- 100 pg/ml) in plasma from 25 patients with cystic fibrosis. In patients with less advanced disease, elevated plasma levels of TNF alpha correlated with high levels of complexes between neutrophil elastase and alpha 1-proteinase inhibitor, suggesting that TNF alpha may be a mediator of neutrophil degranulation. TNF alpha, by its chemotactic effect on neutrophils, may also contribute to the massive influx of neutrophils into and around the bronchial tree. Our findings raise the questions whether in patients with cystic fibrosis TNF alpha acts as cachectin and whether it mediates the anorexia that often results in weight loss.