Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) can promote endothelial cell transcription, synthesis, and secretion of urokinase plasminogen activator (uPA) augmenting extracellular matrix remodeling and influencing cellular differentiation. In this report, the role of the protein kinase C (PKC) pathway in mediating TNF induction of uPA in human umbilical vein endothelial cells is described. The PKC inhibitors (H-7, staurosporine, and calphostin C), but not HA-1004, inhibited TNF-induced uPA expression, synthesis, and secretion in a dose-dependent manner. Analysis of cell-free conditioned medium obtained from PKC inhibitor- treated cultures by micro-enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay methodologies using uPA- and plasminogen activator inhibitor type 1 (PAI-1)-specific monoclonal antibodies indicate that the decrease in uPA activity observed by sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis zymography was a direct result of decreased extracellular uPA antigen and not a consequence of increased PAI-1 antigen. The effect of PKC inhibitors was specific for TNF-mediated increased uPA expression because cytokine induction of PAI-1 was not influenced by these agents. Northern blot analyses also showed that PKC inhibitor treatment of endothelial cells resulted in a decreased steady- state level of uPA mRNA with no measurable change in PAI-1 mRNA in cultures incubated with TNF. Downregulation of cellular PKC by 18 hours of phorbol myristate acetate (PMA) pretreatment of endothelial cell cultures abolished TNF-mediated extracellular uPA induction. This effect was specific for PMA because 4-alpha PMA pretreatment of cells, which does not stimulate PKC, was ineffective in altering TNF induction of endothelial cell uPA. Induction of PKC directly with PMA, mezerein, and (-)-octylindolactam V increased endothelial cell levels of extracellular uPA in a time- and dose-dependent manner. In addition, this increase in endothelial cell extracellular uPA activity mediated by PKC agonists could be inhibited with PKC inhibitors. Endothelial cells treated with TNF acquire the ability to invade extracellular matrix and reorganize into tube-like structures when grown on Matrigel- coated culture dishes, a behavior blocked by H-7, but not by HA 1004. In summary, these data implicate a role for the PKC pathway in the TNF- mediated induction of uPA expression, subsequent matrix remodeling, and the formation of tube-like structures, a process important in neovascularization, wound healing, and leukocyte extravasation.