Scavenger receptor (ScR)-mediated uptake of modified lipoproteins may contribute to the transformation of smooth muscle cells into lipid-laden foam cells during atherogenesis. This study examined the in vivo expression of ScRs in aortas, with or without balloon injury, taken from hypercholesterolemic or normocholesterolemic rabbits. Numerous intimal cells in the rabbit aortic lesions expressed ScRs as detected by immunocytochemical staining with a goat anti-rabbit ScR antibody. Single immunostaining for cell identification markers in serial sections, as well as double staining, confirmed the expression of ScRs by both intimal smooth muscle cells and macrophages. To explore potential inducers of ScR expression by smooth muscle cells in vivo, we studied the regulation of ScR expression in vitro by cytokines known to be present in atherosclerotic lesions. Tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) or interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) increased ScR mRNA levels, protein expression, and AcLDL degradative activity in cultured rabbit aortic smooth muscle cells. The induction of ScR expression in intimal smooth muscle cells in vivo could be a useful marker of smooth muscle cell activation during atherogenesis and may contribute to foam cell formation by this cell type following balloon injury and/or hypercholesterolemia. Cytokines, such as TNF-alpha or IFN-gamma, may stimulate some of the phenotypic changes that characterize the alteration in gene expression of intimal smooth muscle cells in rabbit atherosclerotic lesions.