Smooth muscle cells (SMC) are the major cell type found in the walls of large blood vessels and appear to participate in local immune and inflammatory reactions, as well as in certain vascular diseases. We tested whether human arterial SMC can produce in vitro the colony stimulating factors (CSFs), granulocyte macrophage-CSF (GM-CSF) and macrophage CSF (M-CSF). Untreated internal mammary artery and aortic SMC produced no detectable GM-CSF but constitutively made M-CSF, measured by ELISA and radioimmunoassay, respectively. Interleukin-1 (IL-1) and, to a lesser extent, tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF alpha) stimulated GM-CSF formation within 3 h; mRNA levels also increased particularly in the presence of the protein synthesis inhibitor, cycloheximide. IL-1, TNF alpha and, in addition, interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) raised the M-CSF levels within 6 h; cycloheximide potentiated the effects of IL-1 and TNF alpha on mRNA levels. These results suggest that cytokine-stimulated human arterial SMC may be a source of the M-CSF found in atherosclerotic lesions. Since monocytes/macrophages can be activated by GM-CSF and M-CSF, while GM-CSF can also affect granulocyte function, SMC may participate in inflammatory reactions and vascular diseases by releasing these cytokines.