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Macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF) is a potent proinflammatory mediator that has been shown to potentiate lethal endotoxemia and to play a potentially important regulatory role in human acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). We have investigated whether eosinophils are an important source of MIF and whether MIF may be involved in the pathophysiology of asthma. Unstimulated human circulating eosinophils were found to contain preformed MIF. Stimulation of human eosinophils with phorbol myristate acetate in vitro yielded significant release of MIF protein. For example, eosinophils stimulated with phorbol myristate acetate (100 nM, 8 h, 37 degreesC) released 1,539+/-435 pg/10(6) cells of MIF, whereas unstimulated cells released barely detectable levels (< 142 pg/10(6) cells, mean+/-SEM, n = 8). This stimulated release was shown to be (a) concentration- and time-dependent, (b) partially blocked by the protein synthesis inhibitor cycloheximide, and (c) significantly inhibited by the protein kinase C inhibitor Ro-31,8220. In addition, we show that the physiological stimuli C5a and IL-5 also cause significant MIF release. Furthermore, bronchoalveolar lavage fluid obtained from asthmatic patients contains significantly elevated levels of MIF as compared to nonatopic normal volunteers (asthmatic, 797.5+/-92 pg/ml; controls, 274+/-91 pg/ml). These results highlight the potential importance of MIF in asthma and other eosinophil-dependent inflammatory disorders.