Inflammatory cytokines and nitric oxide (NO) are candidate mediators of pancreatic islet beta-cell destruction in insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. In this study, we used a semiquantitative PCR assay to measure levels of messenger RNA (mRNA) expression of the inflammatory cytokines, interleukin-1 alpha (IL-1 alpha), tumor necrosis factor-alpha, and interferon-gamma (IFN gamma), and of the inducible form of NO synthase (iNOS) in mononuclear leukocytes isolated from pancreatic islets of autoimmune diabetes-prone nonobese diabetic (NOD) female mice. We found that mRNA levels of iNOS, IL-1 alpha, and IFN gamma in islet mononuclear leukocytes increased from 5 weeks of age to onset of diabetes ( > 13 weeks of age). To determine whether increased iNOS, IL-1 alpha, and IFN gamma mRNA expressions were related to diabetes development, we compared mRNA levels of these molecules in mononuclear leukocytes from islets of 12 week-old diabetes-prone NOD female mice and three groups of 12-week-old mice with low diabetes risk: NOD female mice injected with complete Freund's adjuvant at 4 weeks of age, NOD male mice, and BALB/c female mice that do not develop diabetes. We found that iNOS, IL-1 alpha, and IFN gamma mRNA levels were higher in mononuclear leukocytes from islets of diabetes-prone NOD female mice than in those from mice correlated with IL-1 alpha and IFN gamma mRNA levels. By using specific antibodies and immunohistochemical methods, we localized iNOS in macrophages as well as in beta-cells of islets from diabetes-prone NOD female mice. These findings suggest that IL-1 alpha and IFN gamma may promote islet beta-cell destruction at least in part by up-regulating iNOS expression an No production by both macrophages and beta-cells in the islets of autoimmune diabetes-prone NOD mice.