IL-2 mediates the regression of certain malignancies, but clinical use is limited because of associated toxicities, including parenchymal lymphocytic infiltration with multiple organ failure. Secondarily induced cytokines are important mediators of IL-2 toxicity and IL-2-induced lymphocyte-endothelial adherence and trafficking. The recently discovered C-C chemokines, RANTES (regulated on activation, normal T expressed and secreted) and macrophage inflammatory protein-1alpha, have also been implicated in lymphocytic migration. We hypothesized that IL-2 alters cytokine, C-C chemokine, and adhesion molecule expression in association with parenchymal lymphocytic infiltration. C57BL/6 mice were injected with 3x10(5) IU of IL-2 or 0.1 ml of 5% dextrose intraperitoneally every 8 h for 6 d, then killed. IL-2 induced massive lymphocytic infiltration in the liver and lung and moderate infiltration in the kidney in association with organ edema and dysfunction. Immunostaining showed increased intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1) and vascular cell adhesion molecule-1 (VCAM-1) expression in association with this organ-specific lymphocytic infiltration. Flow cytometry showed increased expression of the corresponding ligands (lymphocyte function-associated antigen-1 and very late antigen-4) on splenocytes. IL-2 increased TNF-alpha mRNA and protein expression in the liver. Organs infiltrated by lymphocytes had increased TNF-alpha mRNA, whereas RANTES mRNA was increased in all organs, regardless of lymphocytic infiltration. IL-2 toxicity involves organ-specific TNF-alpha and RANTES production with increased ICAM-1 and VCAM-1 expression as potential mechanisms facilitating lymphocytic infiltration and organ dysfunction.