Intercellular adhesion molecule 1 (ICAM-1) is a member of the immunoglobulin superfamily with important functions in immune activation and inflammation. Its interaction with different cytokines [interleukin 1 (IL-1), tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma)] is important for lymphocyte migration into inflammatory sites. We used a sandwich enzyme immunoassay (EIA) for the quantitative determination of soluble ICAM-1 (cICAM-1) in vitreous and plasma from patients undergoing vitrectomy for a variety of proliferative vitreoretinal disorders. The values obtained were compared with the total vitreal protein. The respective concentrations of cICAM-1 in vitreous were as follows control samples, 3.47 +/- 1.84 ng/ml; proliferative diabetic retinopathy (PDR) of diabetes type I 27.43 +/- 14.72 ng/ml; PDR of diabetes type II, 32.46 +/- 10.31 ng/ml; idiopathic proliferative vitreoretinopathy 35.74 +/- 15.30 ng/ml; and traumatic PVR, 45.23 +/- 24.24 ng/ml. Plasma samples yielded the following concentrations: controls, 415 +/- 43.4 ng/ml; PDR of diabetes type I, 469 +/- 96.9 ng/ml; PDR of diabetes type II, 425 +/- 65.4 ng/ml; idiopathic PVR, 402 +/- 119.9 ng/ml; and traumatic PVR, 434 +/- 118.6 ng/ml. Our results demonstrate high levels of ICAM-1 in most proliferative vitreoretinal disorders. In PDR and in traumatic PVR, cICAM-1 levels were elevated significantly more than were total vitreal protein levels. In traumatic PVR, patients with a short interval between previous surgery or traumatic event demonstrated the highest levels of cICAM. Since plasma levels were not significantly altered, we suggest that local cICAM-1 production, possibly from macrophages, may be of importance in the early phase of PVR and PDR by enhancing immune activation and inflammation.