Interleukin-6 (IL-6) has been suggested to play a major role in multiple myeloma. To investigate the source and target cells of IL-6 activity in multiple myeloma, expression of the cytokine and its receptor genes by myeloma plasma cells was studied. Tumor cells were sorted from bone marrow aspirates of myeloma patients using 4-parameter gating. Myeloma cells were identified as CD38high CD45negative- intermediate and by their light-scatter characteristics. Sorted cells contained only myeloma plasma cells. No contaminating cells were present as determined morphologically, by monoclonal cytoplasmic Ig analysis, and by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification of marker genes. Myeloma cells from 45% of patients expressed IL-6. IL-6 receptor transcripts were found in 68% of the specimens. IL-6 gene expression correlated with expression of the IL-6 receptor gene (P < .005). Correlations observed between the expression of CD45, a protein tyrosine phosphatase expressed by B lymphocytes but not by plasma cells, and the expression of the IL-6 and IL-6-receptor genes (P < .0002 and P < .005, respectively) suggest that an autocrine IL-6 loop is functioning in myeloma in preplasma cells.