Eosinophilia in humans is associated with eosinophil infiltration and cardiac localization of eosinophil granule proteins. Eosinophil cationic proteins are responsible for cardiac disease in some patients with eosinophilia. We have investigated the in vitro effect of four eosinophil granule proteins: eosinophil cationic protein (ECP), major basic protein (MBP), eosinophil-derived neurotoxin (EDN) and eosinophil peroxidase (EPO), on mast cells isolated from human cardiac tissue (HHMC). ECP and, to a lesser extent MBP (0.3-3 microM), but not EDN and EPO, stimulated the release of histamine and tryptase from HHMC. This release reaction induced by ECP and MBP was Ca(2+)- and temperature-dependent and was abolished by preincubation with anti-ECP and anti-MBP, respectively. The activation of HHMC by ECP and MBP was abolished by preincubation with 2-deoxy-D-glucose and antimycin A. These data demonstrate that some eosinophil cationic proteins, ECP and MBP, are selective activators of HHMC, thus contributing to the cardiac lesions in patients with eosinophilia.