Erythropoietin (EPO) formation in kidneys of 18 patients with autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD) was investigated. In 12 patients on hemodialysis and in 6 patients with preterminal renal failure serum, EPO was 29 +/- 7 and 16 +/- 1.5 mU/ml and hemoglobin concentrations were 11.0 +/- 0.6 and 12.7 +/- 1.2 g/dl, respectively. Cyst fluid from a total of 357 renal cysts was obtained by either in vivo aspiration or immediately after nephrectomy. The cysts contained variable concentrations of bioactive EPO from undectable values up to 3.2 U/ml. A pronounced enrichment of EPO was observed in cysts with sodium concentrations greater than 100 mmol/liter, suggesting an association with proximal tubular malformations. The EPO concentrations in the cysts were neither correlated with the protein concentration nor with the oxygen pressure of the cyst fluid. Using a cDNA probe for human EPO, mRNA for EPO was localized in stroma cells of the cyst walls by an in situ hybridization technique. Our findings suggest that single interstitial cells juxtaposed to proximal tubular cysts may produce EPO independent of the oxygen pressure inside the cysts, which ameliorates the anemia during end-stage polycystic kidney disease.