The expression of immunoregulatory cytokines was investigated in freshly isolated synovial fluid mononuclear cells (SFMC) and peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) from patients with RA, using a quantitative reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) assay. IFN-gamma, TGF-beta, IL-10 and IL-12 (p40) transcripts were detected in SFMC of patients with early disease (<1 year duration) as well as in patients with long standing arthritis (>1 year). The expression of IFN-gamma, IL-10 and IL-12 mRNA was increased in SFMC compared with RA PBMC. In addition, the expression was higher in RA SFMC than in PBMC from health control individuals. Immunoassay analysis of the secreted IL-12 heterodimer demonstrated increased levels in RA SF compared with levels found in serum from RA patients and control individuals. High levels of TGF-beta mRNA were found in SFMC, but a significantly decreased TGF-beta/beta2-microglobulin (beta2-M) ratio was found compared with PBMC from both patients and control individuals. IL-4mRNA could not be detected, either in SFMC or in PBMC. Cytokine expression in RA PBMC did not differ from control PBMC, with the exception of a decreased TGF-beta/beta2-M ratio in RA patients with early disease. Our findings of IFN-gamma mRNA and IL-12, but undetectable levels of IL-4 mRNA, suggest that the synovitis is characterized by a type 1 immune response. The presence of TGF-beta and IL-10 mRNA indicates that immunosuppressive cytokines may also operate in the inflamed joint, although their level of expression may not be sufficient for down-modulation of immune activation.