Tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) is a multifunctional cytokine that has an important role in the pathogenesis of inflammation, cachexia, and septic shock. Although TNF-alpha is mainly produced by macrophages, there is evidence regarding TNF-alpha production by cells that are not derived from bone marrow. TNF-alpha production by normal and inflamed human liver was assessed at both mRNA and protein levels. Using a wide panel of novel anti-TNF-alpha monoclonal antibodies and a specific polyclonal antiserum, TNF-alpha immunoreactivity was found in hepatocytes from patients chronically infected with either hepatitis B virus (HBV) or hepatitis C virus. Minimal TNF-alpha immunoreactivity was detected in the mononuclear cell infiltrate and Kupffer cells. In situ hybridization experiments using a TNF-alpha RNA probe showed a significant expression of TNF-alpha mRNA in hepatocytes, Kupffer cells, and some infiltrating mononuclear cells. By contrast, TNF-alpha was detected at low levels in liver biopsies from normal individuals or patients with alcoholic liver disease and low expression of TNF-alpha mRNA was observed in these specimens. Transfection of HepG2 hepatoblastoma cells with either HBV genome or HBV X gene resulted in induction of TNF-alpha expression. Our results demonstrate that viral infection induces, both in vivo and in vitro, TNF-alpha production in hepatocytes, and indicate that the HBV X protein may regulate the expression of this cytokine. These findings suggest that TNF-alpha may have an important role in human liver diseases induced by viruses.