Human glioblastoma multiforme cell lines, brain tumor biopsy tissue, and normal human fetal brain synthesize interleukin (IL)-6 and IL-6 receptor (IL-6R). Neither of these is expressed in human neurons or neuroblastoma cell lines in culture. Astrocytes from fetal brain grown in culture retain the ability to synthesize IL-6 but do not express IL-6R as inferred from RT-PCR and Southern blot studies. Coexpression of IL-6 and IL-6R in the glioblastoma cell line U87MG is confirmed by immunofluorescence staining. Both specific monoclonal antibodies against IL-6 and IL-6R and antisense oligonucleotide to IL-6 mRNA inhibit the growth of U87MG cells in culture, suggesting the existence of a functional autocrine growth loop. Anti-IL-6 antibodies also inhibit the growth of glioblastoma cell lines U373 and U118. The expression of IL-6 by human fetal astrocytes in culture is highly suggestive of its role as an oncofetal protein responsible for rapid proliferation of fetal and tumor cells but not cells of adult brain.