Cytokines play a pathogenetic role in a variety of infective and inflammatory diseases. In the present study, we had two objectives: (a) to define the kinetics of tumor necrosis factor (TNF) in plasma after acute myocardial infarction (AMI) in patients treated with early thrombolysis, and (b) to measure other cytokines, interleukin-1 (IL-1) and TNF receptor antagonists, in plasma. TNF-α, but not IL-1β(3 or IL-8, was present in plasma of 6 of 7 patients with severe AMI (Killip class 3 or 4). No TNF (<50 pg/ml) was detected in a group of 11 patients with uncomplicated myocardial infarction (Killip class 1) or in control patients without AMI. Soluble TNF receptor type I and IL-1 receptor antagonist (IL-1Ra) were also significantly increased in the group with severe AMI compared with those with uncomplicated AMI. Circulating TNF is increased only in AMI complicated by heart failure at hospital admission. This finding may have diagnostic and therapeutic relevance.