Cardiac surgery with cardiopulmonary bypass triggers an inflammatory response involving proinflammatory cytokines such as tumor necrosis factor-alpha, interleukin-6, and interleukin-8. To elucidate the pathophysiology of this cytokine response, we explored the possible differences in cytokine responses between patients undergoing heart transplantation and those undergoing coronary artery bypass grafting. Plasma levels of tumor necrosis factor-alpha, interleukin-6, interleukin-8, and interleukin-10 were measured in eight patients undergoing heart transplantation (mean age 44 years) and eight patients undergoing coronary artery bypass grafting (mean age 61 years). Duration of cardiopulmonary bypass and ischemic time were both longer in the heart transplantation group than in the coronary artery bypass grafting group (133 +/- 26 min vs 100 +/- 31 min, p < 0.05, and 130 +/- 47 min vs 58 +/- 21 min, p < 0.005, respectively). Samples were collected before heparin administration, at aortic crossclamping and declamping, and at 0.5, 1, 1.5, 2, 4, 12, and 24 hours after declamping. Tumor necrosis factor-alpha levels were significantly higher 30 minutes after aortic declamping in the heart transplantation group than in the coronary artery bypass grafting group (68 +/- 30 vs 18 +/- 5 pg/ml, p < 0.05). Interleukin-6 and interleukin-8 levels were also significantly higher 90 minutes after declamping in patients undergoing heart transplantation than in those undergoing coronary artery bypass grafting (310 +/- 63 vs 169 +/- 24 pg/ml, p < 0.05, and 73 +/- 17 vs 24 +/- 5 pg/ml, p < 0.01, respectively). Furthermore, interleukin-6 and interleukin-8 values 90 minutes after declamping were significantly correlated with the ischemic time (r = 0.72 and r = 0.82, respectively, both p < 0.05). Interleukin-10 levels in both groups rose to reach a peak value of around 115 pg/ml 1 hour after declamping. Patients undergoing heart transplantation exhibited a second peak of tumor necrosis factor-alpha, interleukin-8, and interleukin-10 levels 12 hours after declamping, probably related to the administration of rabbit antihuman thymocyte immunoglobulin (Thymoglobuline) 3 hours after declamping. Interleukin-6 levels decreased more significantly 12 and 24 hours after declamping in patients undergoing heart transplantation, probably related to methylprednisolone therapy. In conclusion, cardiopulmonary bypass is associated with the production of both proinflammatory and antiinflammatory cytokines. The production of proinflammatory cytokines in patients undergoing heart transplantation is higher than that in patients undergoing coronary artery bypass grafting, and this increase could be related to the longer duration of ischemia in the former group. The later course of cytokine levels after heart transplantation may be further influenced by immunosuppressive therapy.