Cells in the rheumatoid synovium express high levels of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II molecules in vivo. We have therefore examined the ability of engagement of MHC class II molecules by the superantigen Staphylococcal enterotoxin A (SEA) to activate interleukin 6 (IL-6) and IL-8 gene expression in type B synoviocytes isolated from patients with rheumatoid arthritis. SEA had a minimal or undetectable effect on the expression of either gene in resting synoviocytes, as determined by Northern blot and specific enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. However, induction of MHC class II molecule expression after treatment of synoviocytes with interferon gamma (IFN-gamma) enabled the cells to respond to SEA in a dose-dependent manner, resulting in an increase in both the level of steady-state mRNA for IL-6 and IL-8, and the release of these cytokines into the supernatant. IFN-gamma by itself had no effect on the expression of either cytokine. Pretreatment of the cells with the transcription inhibitor actinomycin D prevented the increase in cytokine mRNA induced by SEA, whereas cycloheximide superinduced mRNA for both cytokines after stimulation by SEA. Taken together, these results indicate that signaling through MHC class II molecules may represent a novel mechanism by which inflammatory cytokine production is regulated in type B rheumatoid synoviocytes, and potentially provides insight into the manner by which superantigens may initiate and/or propagate autoimmune diseases.