IL-2 and IL-5 gene expression in response to alloantigen was studied in liver allograft recipients and in an in vitro system. Seventy-seven sequential liver allograft biopsies from 22 patients were analyzed for IL-2 and IL-5 mRNA by polymerase chain reaction and Southern blot hybridization. Message for IL-5 was present in 74% of allografts with rejection, 46% of allografts with resolving rejection, and 33% of allografts with no evidence of rejection. The frequency of IL-5 transcripts in rejecting allografts was significantly different than the frequency of IL-5 transcripts in grafts without evidence of rejection (P = 0.003). Message for IL-2 was detected in 29% of rejecting allografts, 18% of allografts without evidence of rejection, and 43% of allografts with resolving rejection. There was no significant association between IL-2 gene expression and the histopathological status of the allograft. Interestingly, 9 of 15 biopsies that contained IL-2 message in the no rejection and resolving rejection categories went on to display rejection shortly thereafter. IL-2 and IL-5 gene expression rarely occurred simultaneously within allografts. An in vitro system consisting of irradiated, allogeneic stimulator cells and normal peripheral blood mononuclear cells as responders was established to further investigate alloantigen-driven IL-2 and IL-5 production. Both IL-2 and IL-5 were produced in response to alloantigen as determined by specific bioassays. Maximal levels of IL-5 activity in culture supernatants generally followed maximal IL-2 levels by 24 hr, but both IL-2 and IL-5 production were dramatically inhibited by CsA. Analysis of cytokine gene expression revealed that IL-2 transcription peaked within the initial 24 hr of culture, whereas IL-5 transcription was maximal at 120 hr of culture. The expression of a CTL-specific serine esterase gene was similar to IL-5 in that it was maximal during the latter phases of the culture period. Thus, both human IL-2 and IL-5 are produced in response to alloantigen and are inhibitable by CsA. These data suggest that IL-2 and IL-5 may participate in cellular pathways of tissue damage within the rejecting allograft.