In vitro treatment of human peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMNC) with proteolytic enzymes (bromelain, papain) and amylase leads to the production of large amounts of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), interleukin-1-beta (IL-1 beta), and interleukin-6 (IL-6) in a time and dose dependent manner. Increased TNF-alpha and IL-6 production was already found after 4-6 hours of incubation, and plateau levels were reached after 12-16 hours. Plateau levels up to 1500 pg TNF-alpha/ml/10(6) PBMNC, 13000 pg IL-1 beta/ml/10(6) PBMNC, and 23000 pg IL-6/ml/10(6) PBMNC were observed. Control cultures contained below 35 pg/ml/10(6) PBMNC of TNF-alpha, IL-1 beta or IL-6. In contrast to TNF-alpha which was undetectable after more than 24 hours, peak levels of IL-1 beta and IL-6 were still present at 24 hours. After incubation of the enzyme solution for some hours at 56 degrees C the cytokine inducing capacity disappeared. Neutralization experiments with inactivating antibodies, radioimmunoassay, and western blotting after electrophoretic separation showed that the TNF-like activity found in the lytic assay was due to TNF-alpha. Interferon-alpha (IFN-alpha) and Interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma), which had no effect alone, synergistically increased TNF-alpha production when applied together with the enzymes. A commercial mixture of these enzymes (Wobenzym), which was also investigated, showed a similar concentration and time dependence, as well as synergism with the interferons. A synergistic effect on TNF-alpha production was also found with the enzymes and phorbol ester (PMA).