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Recent studies suggest that release of cytokines during inflammatory states such as septic shock leads to hypocholesterolemia. To examine whether tumor necrosis factor α (TNF), which is the major cytokine in inflammatory disease, causes hypocholesterolemia, we measured serum levels of total (bioac-tive and receptor-bound) TNF, cholesterol, Apo B, and Apo A1 in seven patients with septic shock over a period of 8 days. Since elevated serum TNF levels are accompanied by the release of soluble TNF receptors, levels of TNF receptors p55 and p75 were also measured. Patients with septic shock had significantly higher serum TNF and TNF receptor levels compared with healthy controls. Increased cytokine levels were accompanied by a significant decline in total serum cholesterol apolipoprotein A1 and B. In vitro studies with cultured human skin fibroblasts, human umbilical vein endothelial cells, and HepG2 hepatoma cells showed that TNF increased the degradation of 125l-labeled low-density lipoprotein in all the cell lines tested. Recombinant soluble TNF receptors inhibited the TNF-induced stimulation of low-density lipoprotein receptor in a concentration-dependent manner. However, the calculated ratio of TNF receptors to total TNF measured in serum of these patients was not able to counteract the stimulatory effect of TNF, possibly due to the higher molar excess of TNF receptors required to achieve this effect in vitro. Our data strengthen the hypothesis that serum values of total TNF determine the extent of hypocholesterolemia during sepsis and septic shock despite the presence of a high concentration of TNF receptors. Studies with recombinant TNF also confirm the role of TNF in hypocholesterolemia in inflammation.