ALDARA (imiquimod cream 5%) recently became available for the treatment of genital and perianal warts; however, the topical mechanism of action of imiquimod is not fully understood. Imiquimod, and its analogs R-842, S-27609, and S-28463, are potent anti-viral and anti-tumor agents in animal models. Much of the biologic activity of these compounds can be attributed to the induction of cytokines, including interferon-alpha, tumor necrosis factor-alpha, interleukins-1, -6, -8, and others. This study was performed to characterize the response of mice and rats to topical application of imiquimod and S-28463 and also to evaluate these agents in cultures of murine and human skin cells. Topical administration of imiquimod or S-28463 to the flanks of hairless mice and rats leads to increases in local concentrations of interferon and tumor necrosis factor in the skin. The concentrations of interferon and tumor necrosis factor were higher at the site of drug application than in skin from the contralateral flank or skin from untreated animals. Interferon-alpha mRNA levels were also elevated in the skin of mice after topical application of either imiquimod or S-28463. In vitro, both imiquimod and S-28463 induced increases in interferon and tumor necrosis factor in cultures of cells isolated from hairless mouse skin. Imiquimod also increased interleukin-8 concentrations in human keratinocyte and fibroblast cultures, whereas S-28463 induced increases in tumor necrosis factor in fibroblast cultures. These results demonstrate that imiquimod and S-28463 stimulate production of cytokines in the skin after topical application, which may play a major role in its activity in genital wart patients.