We measured plasma concentration of alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (alpha-MSH), a proopiomelanocortin derivative that modulates pyrogenic and proinflammatory effects of cytokines, in infectious and inflammatory disorders in humans to learn if changes in this peptide take place in naturally occurring disease. alpha-MSH was elevated in HIV-infected patients of the CDC groups III and IV. Although the peptide increased in the circulation of normal subjects injected with endotoxin, it was reduced in patients with septic syndrome. alpha-MSH was found in the synovial fluid of arthritis patients, and its concentration was greater in the forms of arthritis marked by greater inflammation. We found that alpha-MSH is increased in the circulation of patients with acute myocardial infarction receiving thrombolytic therapy. Plasma concentrations of alpha-MSH is increased in the circulation of patients with acute myocardial infarction receiving thrombolytic therapy. Plasma concentrations of alpha-MSH were lower in healthy elderly subjects than in young controls. Because an excess of proinflammatory cytokines can have detrimental effects, we investigated the influences of alpha-MSH on the production of interleukin-1 (IL-1) and tumor necrosis factor (TNF) in HIV-infected patients and in patients with septic syndrome. Production of these cytokines in whole-blood samples stimulated with endotoxin was significantly reduced by treatment of blood with alpha-MSH. alpha-MSH has been injected into at least 106 human subjects to study its effects on pituitary function, menstrual bleeding, and tanning. The peptide was always well tolerated. alpha-MSH administration could open new perspectives in treatment of inflammatory diseases in humans.