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To evaluate whether IL-6 participates in the host response to intrauterine infection, we studied IL-6 bioactivity and isoforms in amniotic fluid (AF). Two different assays for IL-6 were used: the hepatocyte stimulating factor assay (in Hep3B2 cells) and the SDS-PAGE/immunoblot assay. IL-6 determinations were performed in 205 AF samples. Samples were obtained from patients in the midtrimester of pregnancy (n = 25), at term with no labor (n = 31), at term in active labor (n = 40), and from patients in preterm labor (n = 109). Higher AF IL-6 levels were observed in women in preterm labor with intraamniotic infection than in women in preterm labor without intraamniotic infection (median = 375 ng/ml, range = 30-5000 ng/ml vs. median = 1.5 ng/ml, range = 0-500, respectively, P less than 0.0001). The 23-25- and 28-30-kD IL-6 species could be readily detected in SDS-PAGE immunoblots performed directly on 10-microliters aliquots of AF from patients with intraamniotic infection. Among women in preterm labor with culture-negative AF, those who failed to respond to subsequent tocolytic treatment had higher AF IL-6 concentrations than those who responded to therapy (median = 50 ng/ml vs. median = 1.2 ng/ml, respectively, P less than 0.05). Only low levels of IL-6 were detected in AF obtained from normal women in the midtrimester and third trimester of pregnancy. Decidual tissue explants obtained from the placentas of women undergoing elective cesarean section at term without labor (n = 11) produced IL-6 in response to bacterial endotoxin. In a pilot study, AF IL-6 was determined in 56 consecutive women admitted with preterm labor. All patients (n = 10) with elevated AF IL-6 (cutoff = 46 ng/ml) delivered a premature neonate. 4 of these 10 patients had positive AF cultures for microorganisms. These studies implicate IL-6 in the host response to intrauterine infection and suggest that evaluation of AF IL-6 levels may have diagnostic and prognostic value in the management of women in preterm labor.