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Systemic complications after cardiac surgery are common in heart failure patients. However, the pathophysiological mechanisms, such as a different local inflammatory response of failing hearts, remain in question. This study examines whether failing hearts respond differently to cardioplegic arrest and reperfusion compared with non-failing hearts (controls).The inflammatory response was evaluated in samples collected simultaneously from the radial artery and coronary sinus, and myocardial tissue in 62 patients undergoing cardiac surgery. No myocardial release of inflammatory mediators was observed upon reperfusion in controls (n = 19). In contrast, in patients with heart failure, reperfusion was characterized by a myocardial release of several cytokines. Myocardial interleukin-6 was 115% increased in non-ischaemic heart failure (n = 18, P = 0.002) as compared with a 117% increase in patients with ischaemic heart failure (n = 25, P = 0.01). Furthermore, a myocardial release of monocyte chemoattractant protein-1 was observed in both patient groups: a 109% (P = 0.001) and 114% (P = 0.01) increase in patients with non-ischaemic heart failure and ischaemic heart failure, respectively. Post-operative myocardial damage, expression of inflammatory mediators, and p65-nuclear factor-κB activity were similar in all patient groups. Inflammatory cell content was increased in early ischaemic myocardial tissue in both heart failure groups compared with controls.Heart failure patients show a clear myocardial inflammatory response upon reperfusion, probably explained by degranulation of infiltrated inflammatory cells. Results in controls indicate that they better withstand cardioplegic arrest and reperfusion without an explicit myocardial inflammatory response.