Primary pulmonary hypertension (PPH) is characterized by the proliferation of smooth-muscle cells, fibroblasts, and endothelial cells in the walls of small pulmonary arteries. In order to evaluate a role for proinflammatory cytokines in this process, we studied the concentration of interleukin-1 beta (IL-1 beta), IL-6, and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF alpha) in the serum of 29 patients with severe PPH referred to our center for lung transplantation. Results were compared with those obtained in 15 normal controls and nine patients with pulmonary hypertension secondary to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD-PH). TNF alpha serum levels were within the normal range in each group. This contrasted with increased IL-1 beta serum levels in severe PPH (118 +/- 36 pg/ml, mean +/- SEM) as compared with controls (3 +/- 1 pg/ml, p < 0.001) or COPD-PH patients (3 +/- 1 pg/ml, p < 0.001). IL-6 serum concentrations were also higher in severe PPH (66 +/- 20 pg/ml) than in controls (14 +/- 6 pg/ml, p < 0.01). This study demonstrates increased serum levels of IL-1 beta and IL-6 in severe PPH, and suggests a role for proinflammatory cytokines in PPH.