Endogenous proteolytic enzymes have been shown to be potential sources of airway inflammation inducing proinflammatory cytokine release from respiratory epithelial cells; however, whether any of the exogenous proteases from important allergen sources such as the house dust mite present in our environment behave in a similar fashion is unclear. To this end, we have investigated whether the mite cysteine and serine proteolytic allergens, Der p 1 and Der p 9, respectively, induced cytokine production from primary human bronchial epithelial cells and from the epithelial cell line BEAS-2B. Cells were exposed to mite proteases, and cells or supernatants were assayed for cytokine release, cytokine mRNA expression, and modulation of intracellular calcium ion concentration. Both proteases induced concentration- and time-dependent increases in the release of granulocyte-macrophage (GM)-CSF, IL-6, and IL-8 as well as an increase in the expression of IL-6 mRNA. Cytokine release and mRNA expression were first observed at 8 h and 2 h after protease exposure, respectively. The minimum concentration of each protease that was required to stimulate GM-CSF, IL-6, and IL-8 release was approximately 10 ng/ml. Cytokine release was initiated by 1 to 2 h of protease exposure, although maximum concentrations were detected only after a 24-h incubation. IL-6, but not IL-8 and GM-CSF, was shown to be degraded by both proteases at concentrations of > 2 microg/ml. The proteases also stimulated changes in the intracellular calcium ion concentration. All mite protease-induced phenomena were inhibited using appropriate protease inhibitors. These results suggest that the proteolytic activity of an allergen may stimulate the release of proinflammatory cytokines from human bronchial epithelium.