The aim of this study was to evaluate the relationship between tumorigenicity of cell sublines derived from weakly tumorigenic SKv-e and SKv-l keratinocytes harboring human papillomavirus type 16 (HPV16) and their susceptibility to autocrine growth limitation mediated by tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha). These sublines displayed different in vitro proliferative potential which correlated with tumorigenicity in nu/nu mice. Recombinant TNF-alpha inhibited in vitro growth of weakly tumorigenic parental SKv cell lines while it did not affect proliferation of their respective highly tumorigenic sublines. Resistance to TNF-alpha correlated with both increased in vitro proliferation and tumorigenicity. Anti-TNF-alpha antibodies (Ab) significantly increased in vitro proliferation of weakly tumorigenic parental SKv cells up to the levels of their highly tumorigenic sublines. Growth of highly tumorigenic SKv cells was not affected. On the other hand, proliferation of SKv cells was affected neither by transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta) nor by anti-TGF-beta Ab. All SKv cell sublines tested spontaneously released TNF-alpha, as evaluated by a specific radioimmunoassay; however, the levels of the endogenous cytokine were not related to their proliferative potential and tumorigenicity. An increased resistance to the anti-proliferative effect of TNF-alpha may be associated with decreased expression of TNF-alpha receptors (TNF-alpha R) inasmuch as evaluation of 125I-TNF-alpha binding and Northern-blot analysis of TNF-alpha R-specific mRNA showed that highly tumorigenic SKv cell sublines expressed significantly lower numbers of TNF-alpha R than their respective parental cells. These results show that an increased tumorigenicity of HPV16-harboring SKv keratinocytes may be, at least partially, due to escape from autocrine TNF-alpha-mediated growth limitation.