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Skin blisters induced by suction on the forearm of normal volunteers provide a convenient model to study the inflammatory response in vivo in man. In our study, after removal of the roof of the blister, i.e., the epidermis, the exposed floor of the blister (dermal-epidermal interface) was bathed with 70% autologous serum using a multiwell skin chamber. Migration of leukocytes (90-95% neutrophils) into the chamber fluid was detectable within 3 h, and appeared to plateau at 16-24 h. Sampling of the dermal-epidermal interface revealed primarily mononuclear cells during the first 8 h of the inflammatory response; however, their prevalence at 24 h was greatly diminished due to neutrophil infiltration. Accompanying the cellular immune response was the accumulation of inflammatory mediators in the bathing medium. The accumulation of IFN-gamma reached a plateau within 3 h; significant accumulations of the complement fragment, C5a, and of leukotriene B4 were also detected at 3 h. The accumulation of C5a did not peak until 5 h, whereas leukotriene B4 continued to accumulate through 24 h. IL-6 and IL-8 concentrations were minimal at 3-8 h but dramatic by 24 h while IL-1 beta, tumor necrosis factor-alpha, and granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor were undetectable within 3-8 h, but markedly elevated by 24 h. There was little accumulation of IL-4 and no accumulation of IL-1 alpha or IL-2 during the 24-h period. The sequential appearance of mediators at an inflammatory focus suggests that a carefully regulated dynamic system is responsible for controlling the evolution of the inflammatory response.