In order to facilitate cytokine mRNA detection in blood cells, we have developed a highly reproducible and easily performed RNA isolation method for use with whole blood. Previously frozen human whole blood samples were lysed in guanidine thiocyanate solution to isolate total RNA. After reverse transcription a PCR method was applied to detect beta-actin and cytokine mRNA expression (interleukin-(IL)2, IL4, IL10, tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF alpha) and interferon gamma (IFN gamma)). The presence of cDNA was confirmed by agarose gel electrophoresis and quantitated on-line using sequence-specific fluorochrome labeled internal oligonucleotide probes. This quantitative method is based on the cleavage of fluorescent dye labeled probes by the 5' --> 3' endonuclease activity of the Taq DNA polymerase during PCR and measurement of fluorescence intensity by a Sequence Detector System. The signal generated was directly proportional to the starting copy number of target molecules in the sample over 6 log concentrations and quantitative analysis of cDNA concentrations was performed in comparison to beta-actin or cytokine cDNA standards. mRNAs coding for beta-actin and TNF alpha were readily detectable in cDNAs prepared from the whole blood of eight healthy donors, while the other cytokines were expressed in lower amounts (IFN gamma, IL10) or were undetectable (IL2, IL4). The assay described is highly reproducible, requires no post PCR manipulation of the amplicons and permits the analysis of several hundred PCR reactions per day. Using this method it is possible to detect and quantify cytokine mRNA expression reliably in small amounts of previously frozen blood even after storage of samples for at least several months.