Previous work with continuously cultured multiple myeloma lines suggested that cytokine production by tumor cells may mediate some of the medical complications of this disease. To further investigate this issue, we assayed freshly obtained bone marrow (BM) cells from myeloma patients for the in vitro production of cytokines and the presence of cytokine RNA. Production of cytokine protein was assessed by bioassays with the aid of specific neutralizing anticytokine antibodies. These assays detected interleukin-1 (IL-1) and tumor necrosis factor (TNF) secretion by myeloma BM cells, which was significantly greater than secretion from similarly processed BM cells of control individuals. In contrast, lymphotoxin and interleukin-2 (IL-2) production could not be detected. The levels of IL-1 and TNF produced in vitro peaked at 24 hours of culture and correlated with stage and the presence (or absence) of extensive osteolytic bone disease. Northern blot analysis demonstrated the presence of IL-1 beta and TNF RNA in uncultured myeloma BM cells but no detectable IL-1 alpha or lymphotoxin RNA. In addition, the amount of cytokine RNA correlated with protein production, being significantly greater in patients' BM cells than in control marrow. These data suggest a role for IL-1 beta and/or TNF in the pathophysiology of multiple myeloma and argue against a role for lymphotoxin or IL-2.