Using animal models or healthy volunteers, injection of lipopolysaccharide (LPS) or bacteria causes activation of macrophages with excessive synthesis and secretion of proinflammatory cytokines. Although these models mimic the effects of LPS in the host, they may represent more of an experimental expression of endotoxemia than natural infection itself. Therefore, as an ex vivo model of sepsis, whole blood from 15 patients with severe sepsis and 20 control patients without infection was stimulated with LPS to study the kinetics of mRNA expression and release of proinflammatory cytokines, tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha, interleukin (IL)-1 beta, and IL-6. Stimulation of whole blood with 1 microgram/mL LPS resulted in a maximum increase of cytokine secretion in the control group, while a marked (P < .01) depression of TNF-alpha, IL-1 beta, and IL-6 release was observed in the septic group, which persisted up to 10 days after study enrollment. While IL-1 beta mRNA expression was similar in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) harvested from LPS-stimulated whole blood in septic and control patients, the half-life and consequently the expression of TNF-alpha and IL-6 mRNA were strongly reduced in the septic group. These data indicate a downregulatory mechanism of cytokine release in whole blood from patients with severe sepsis that occurs on different levels. Although excessive secretion of proinflammatory cytokines has been considered deleterious for the host, the reduced capacity of PBMCs in whole blood from septic patients to synthesize and secrete proinflammatory cytokines to an inflammatory stimulus may result in immunodeficiency, because these cytokines in low concentrations are involved in the upregulation of essential cellular and humoral immune functions.