We have isolated and characterized the human cardiac mast cell (CMC) and compared this novel mast cell (MC type with MC obtained from uterus, skin, and lung. Heart tissue was obtained from 14 patients with cardiomyopathy (CMP, heart transplantation). CMC were isolated by enzymatic digestion using collagenase, pronase-E, hyaluronidase, and DNAse. Substantial amounts of CMC (0.5% to 1.5% of isolated cells) were found in the atrial appendages but not in ventricular digests or other sites of the heart (< 0.1%). In situ staining of atrial tissue revealed the presence of CMC in the myocardium (2.16 +/- 0.7 MC/mm2), endocardium (2.24 +/- 0.9 MC/mm2), and epicardium. As assessed by combined toluidine blue/immunofluorescence staining with monoclonal antibodies (MoAbs), isolated CMC expressed surface IgE, the receptor for stem cell factor (c-kit receptor/CD117), the p24 antigen (CD9), the Pgp-1 homing receptor (CD44), the pan leukocyte antigen (CD45), and the ICAM-1 antigen (CD54). CMC were not recognized by MoAbs to lymphocyte function associated antigen 2 (LFA-2; CD2), T-cell receptor (TcR; CD3), T4 antigen (CD4), LFA-1 alpha-chain (CD11a), C3biR alpha-chain (CD11b), CR4 alpha-chain (CD11c), LPS-R related Ag (CD14), 3-FAL/x-hapten (CD15), Fc gamma RIII (CD16), lactosylceramid (CDw17), the B-cell antigen CD19, or CR1 (CD35). In situ expression of leukocyte antigens on CMC was demonstrable by indirect immunoperoxidase staining technique and double-labeling immunohistochemistry. Almost all CMC (90%) reacted with MoAbs against tryptase and chymase and thus were MCTC. Cardiac mast cells were also stained by the heparin-binding dye Berberine sulfate and expressed measurable amounts of histamine (4.6 +/- 1.4 pg per cell). Cross linking of either IgE receptor or SCF receptor (c-kit) on CMC resulted in histamine secretion (non-specific release: < 6% of total histamine, alpha IgE induced: 12% to 52%; SCF-induced release: 9% to 18%), whereas neither substance P (a skin MC agonist) nor the basophil agonist FMLP showed an effect on CMC. Together, the CMC is an MCTC primarily located in the appendage of the atrium. This novel type of MC exhibits surface membrane antigen and functional properties similar to those of lung and uterus MC.