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The mechanisms of virus-induced enhancement of intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1) expression in epithelial cells are unknown. In the present study, the effect of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection on the expression of ICAM-1 in human pulmonary type II-like epithelial (A549) cells was evaluated. Conditioned RSV media (cRSV) produced from growth of RSV in A549 cells induced a significant increase in the expression of ICAM-1. Treatment of the cells with noninfectious cRSV prepared by ultraviolet (UV) irradiation (UV-cRSV) or ribavirin treatment resulted in the expression of ICAM-1 to a similar extent as infectious cRSV. These results suggested that RSV induces the synthesis of a soluble mediator(s) that regulates the expression of ICAM-1. Cytokine analysis by immunoassay and polymerase chain reaction showed that RSV induces the synthesis of interleukin (IL)-1 alpha and -beta, and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha). Preincubation of UV-cRSV with soluble IL-1 receptor (sIL-1r) almost completely blocked the enhancement of ICAM-1 expression. Furthermore, simultaneous incubation of infectious purified RSV with sIL-1r resulted in a significant reduction in enhancement of ICAM-1 expression. Preincubation with neutralizing antibodies to IL-1 alpha and -beta, and TNF-alpha showed that the predominant ICAM-1 enhancing soluble mediator in UV-cRSV was IL-1 alpha. These experiments provide direct evidence for an autocrine mechanism of enhanced ICAM-1 expression in RSV-infected epithelial cells that is mediated primarily by IL-1 alpha. Pulmonary epithelial cells may play an important immunoregulatory role in the microenvironment of the lower respiratory tract infected with RSV.