Interleukin-10 or cytokine synthesis inhibitory factor has important antiinflammatory activities in immune diseases. We speculated that diminished IL-10 production in asthma would permit the unopposed synthesis of proinflammatory cytokines, contributing to the development and severity of asthma. Our data demonstrate constitutive secretion of IL-10 into bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluid of normal, nonasthmatic subjects (130 +/- 61 pg/ml; n = 8). Asthmatic patients' BAL fluid was characterized by diminished concentrations of IL-10 (9 +/- 18 pg/ml; n = 8; p < 0.01 compared with that of normal subjects). By using the RNA-based polymerase chain reaction, we demonstrated that diminished IL-10 occurred as a result of inhibition of transcription. IL-10 transcription, but not protein, was observed at the time of the late asthmatic response. We speculate that the subsequent appearance of IL-10 protein could contribute to the resolution of the late asthmatic response. Similar to what was observed in the BAL fluid, peripheral blood mononuclear cells of patients with asthma demonstrated decreased spontaneous (0.01 +/- 0.01 ng/ml-asthmatic and 0.09 +/- 0.04 ng/ml-normal; p < 0.05) and stimulated (0.60 +/- 0.22 ng/ml-asthmatic and 1.69 +/- 0.49 ng/ml-normal; p < 0.05) IL-10 production compared with normal subjects. In support of the hypothesis that IL-10 mitigates the development of inflammation, we demonstrated that the addition of a neutralizing anti-IL-10 antibody to resting peripheral blood mononuclear cell cultures of normal subjects stimulated the spontaneous production of interferon-gamma (10.4 +/- 4.3 to 152.4 +/- 23.6 ng/ml; p < 0.01). Finally, we reasoned that corticosteroids might exert at least part of their antiinflammatory activity through the induction of IL-10 secretion. However, methylprednisolone inhibited the lipopolysaccharide-stimulated production of IL-10 (2.34 +/- 0.49 ng/ml IL-10 with lipopolysaccharide alone to 1.11 +/- 0.38 ng/ml in the additional presence of 10(-6) mol/L methylprednisolone; p < 0.05).