Monocytes from different individuals show variable cytokine production in response to a variety of stimuli. We wished to determine the sets of conditions (cytokine combinations) that would enable us to demonstrate stable inter-individual differences in the production of IL-1 alpha, IL-1 beta, IL-1Ra, on-6 and tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) by monocytes. We assessed the ability of a number of recombinant human cytokines (granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF), interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma), TNF-alpha, IL-4, IL-6, transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta), IL-10 and IL-1Ra)) to stimulate or inhibit the production of one or more of these monocyte products. GM-CSF was found to stimulate the production of all five of these cytokines in a highly reproducible manner. TNF-alpha also up-regulated production of IL-1 alpha, IL-1 beta, IL-1Ra and IL-6 by monocytes, but the variability in the results of cells cultured from the same individuals on different occasions was greater. Other cytokines either stimulated production of only some of the five cytokine products tested, or stimulated the production of some cytokine products while inhibiting production of others. This was especially evident when cytokines were used in combination with GM-CSF: IFN-gamma down-regulated production of IL-1Ra while up-regulating the production of IL-1 alpha/beta, IL-6 and TNF-alpha, while IL-4 had the exact opposite effect. Polymorphisms in regions of cytokine genes that affect transcription may account for some of the interindividual variation in cytokine production. We have shown that a stable estimate of cytokine production phenotype can be obtained when monocytes collected on at least two separate occasions are stimulated by GM-CSF in vitro. We have looked for a relationship between IL-1 production and an 86-bp variable repeat polymorphism in intron 2 of the IL-1Ra gene. A less common allele of this polymorphism (allele 2) was associated with increased production of IL-1Ra protein, and also reduced production of IL-1 alpha protein by monocytes.