Interleukin-6 (IL-6) has been reported to have pro- and anti-inflammatory effects. It has also been shown to cause mesangial cell proliferation in vitro and has been suggested as a mediator of injury in proliferative nephritis. We have assessed the effects of continuous infusion of human recombinant (hr) IL-6, by osmotic minipump, on the degree of glomerular injury, and on glomerular and interstitial cell proliferation, in the accelerated autologous phase of nephrotoxic nephritis. Two groups of rats were pre-immunized with 1 mg of normal rabbit IgG in Freund's complete adjuvant. One week later, nephritis was induced by an intravenous injection of 1 ml of rabbit nephrotoxic serum. One day before the induction of nephritis, group 1 (N = 9) was subcutaneously implanted with osmotic minipumps filled with 50 micrograms (200 microliters) of IL-6 (equivalent to a dose of 6 micrograms/day), while in group 2 (N = 11) the minipumps were filled with 200 microliters of normal saline. In group 3 (N = 6) normal rats were infused with 50 micrograms of IL-6 alone. The rats were killed seven days after implantation of minipumps. The administered hrIL-6 was detectable in the circulation within the pathophysiological range, and induced a hepatic acute phase response, as assessed by alpha 2-macroglobulin levels. Continuous treatment with IL-6 resulted in a significant reduction in albuminuria (from 195 +/- 37 mg/20 hr to 60 +/- 15 mg/20 hr on day 1, and from 494 +/- 52 mg/20 hr to 238 +/- 30 mg/20 hr on day 7, P < 0.002) and in the prevalence of glomerular capillary thrombosis (from 19 +/- 3% to 5 +/- 1%, P < 0.002). There was also a reduction in macrophage infiltration (ED1 + ve cells from 524 +/- 34 to 466 +/- 14 per 50 glomeruli, P < 0.02) and activation (ED3 + ve cells from 106 +/- 13 to 42 +/- 5 per 50 glomeruli, P < 0.002). Immunohistology showed fewer interstitial Ia + ve cells (OX3 and OX4) in the IL-6 treated group. Similar results were obtained in a second set of experiments in which the IL-6 treatment was extended until day 14. Kidney sections taken from nephritic rats infused with IL-6 showed no increase in glomerular or interstitial cell proliferation when stained with antibodies to proliferating cell nuclear antigen. There was no difference in the deposition of rabbit IgG or rat IgG along the glomerular basement membrane (GBM), and the titer of rat anti-rabbit IgG was similar in the IL-6 and control treated rats. Infusion of IL-6 alone in normal rats had no functional or pathological effects. In conclusion, these results show that IL-6 has powerful anti-inflammatory effects in a rat model of anti-GBM nephritis, and does not induce mesangial cell proliferation in vivo.