The aim of this study was to determine whether tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNFalpha) and receptors for TNFalpha are expressed in the exocrine pancreas, and whether pancreatic acinar cells release and respond to TNFalpha. Reverse transcription PCR, immunoprecipitation, and Western blot analysis demonstrated the presence of TNFalpha and 55- and 75-kD TNFalpha receptors in pancreas from control rats, rats with experimental pancreatitis induced by supramaximal doses of cerulein, and in isolated pancreatic acini. Immunohistochemistry showed TNFalpha presence in pancreatic acinar cells. ELISA and bioassay measurements of TNFalpha indicated its release from pancreatic acinar cells during incubation in primary culture. Acinar cells responded to TNFalpha. TNFalpha potentiated NF-kappaB translocation into the nucleus and stimulated apoptosis in isolated acini while not affecting LDH release. In vivo studies demonstrated that neutralization of TNFalpha with an antibody produced a mild improvement in the parameters of cerulein-induced pancreatitis. However, TNFalpha neutralization greatly inhibited apoptosis in a modification of the cerulein model of pancreatitis which is associated with a high percentage of apoptotic cell death. The results indicate that pancreatic acinar cells produce, release, and respond to TNFalpha. This cytokine regulates apoptosis in both isolated pancreatic acini and experimental pancreatitis.