Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is characterized by altered immunoregulation and augmented intestinal synthesis of nitric oxide. The purpose of this study was to determine the effects of exogenous IL-4, introduced by a recombinant human type 5 adenovirus (Ad5) vector, on the tissue injury associated with an experimental model of colonic immune activation and inflammation. Colitis was induced in rats by the intrarectal administration of trinitrobenzene sulfonic acid (TNB) dissolved in 50% ethanol, and control rats received saline via the same route. 1 h later, all rats were randomized into two groups. The first group was injected intraperitoneally (ip) with 3.0 x 10(6) plaque forming units (PFUs) of Ad5 transfected with murine interleukin-4 (Ad5IL-4) and the second group was injected ip with the same amount of Ad5 expressing the Escherichia coli Lac Z gene (Ad5LacZ). One-half of the colitic and control rats were injected again with 3.0 x 10(6) PFUs of Ad5IL-4 or Ad5LacZ on day 3 of the 6-d study. When introduced once or twice via the peritoneal route into control rats, Ad5LacZ was localized to the serosal lining of the peritoneal cavity, the diaphragm and the liver on day 6. One or two injections of Ad5IL-4 into rats also produced measurable levels of circulating IL-4. TNB-colitis in both Ad5LacZ-treated groups was associated with pronounced elevations in serum IFN-gamma, and mucosal ulceration of the distal colon. Myeloperoxidase and inducible nitric oxide synthase II (NOS II) synthetic activity were also increased by 30- and fivefold, respectively, above control levels in the distal colon. However, two injections of Ad5IL-4 into colitic rats caused the overexpression of IL-4, and significantly inhibited tissue damage, serum and colon IFN-gamma levels and myeloperoxidase activity in the distal colon. In addition, NOS II gene expression and NOS II nitric oxide synthesis was significantly inhibited. No therapeutic effect was observed in rats injected once with Ad5IL-4. Thus, IL-4, introduced by Ad5, is therapeutic during acute inflammation in the rat colon. The therapeutic effect of IL-4 was associated with an inhibition of inducible nitric oxide expression and a reduction in nitric oxide synthesis.