Prostaglandins formed by the cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes are important mediators of inflammation in arthritis. The contribution of the inducible COX-2 enzyme to inflammation in rat adjuvant arthritis was evaluated by characterization of COX-2 expression in normal and arthritic paws and by pharmacological inhibition of COX-2 activity. The injection of adjuvant induced a marked edema of the hind footpads with coincident local production of PGE2. PG production was associated with upregulation of COX-2 mRNA and protein in the affected paws. In contrast, the level of COX-1 mRNA was unaffected by adjuvant injection. TNF-alpha and IL-6 mRNAs were also increased in the inflamed paws as was IL-6 protein in the serum. Therapeutic administration of a selective COX-2 inhibitor, SC-58125, rapidly reversed paw edema and reduced the level of PGE2 in paw tissue to baseline. Interestingly, treatment with the COX-2 inhibitor also reduced the expression of COX-2 mRNA and protein in the paw. Serum IL-6 and paw IL-6 mRNA levels were also reduced to near normal levels by SC-58125. Furthermore, inhibition of COX-2 resulted in a reduction of the inflammatory cell infiltrate and decreased inflammation of the synovium. Notably, the antiinflammatory effects of SC-58125 were indistinguishable from the effects observed for indomethacin. These results suggest that COX-2 plays a prominent role in the inflammation associated with adjuvant arthritis and that COX-2 derived PGs upregulate COX-2 and IL-6 expression at inflammatory sites.