Classically, osteoarthritis (OA) has been considered a noninflammatory disease. However, the detection of selected inflammatory mediators in osteoarthritic fluid, in the absence of significant inflammatory cell infiltrate, is increasingly appreciated. We sought to identify the inflammatory component in human OA-affected cartilage that may be involved in cartilage damage/destruction. Using Western blot analysis and an antibody to the conserved region of nitric oxide synthase (NOS), we have observed up-regulation of NOS, one of the "key players" of inflammation, in chondrocytes of OA-affected patients. Remarkably, none of the cartilage samples examined from normal joints demonstrated detectable amounts of this NOS. Western blot analysis using the same alpha-NOS antibody indicated that this NOS from OA-affected cartilage (OA-NOS) was larger in size than (and distinct from) transfected human hepatocyte or murine inducible NOS (iNOS) (150 versus 133 kD) and similar in size to neuronal constitutive NOS (ncNOS). Antibodies specific for iNOS showed binding to murine and human iNOS but not to OA-NOS, endothelial constitutive NOS, or ncNOS. Antibodies specific for ncNOS bound to ncNOS and also to OA-NOS, but not to murine or human iNOS or endothelial constitutive NOS. Incubation of OA cartilage in serum-free medium resulted in spontaneous release, for up to 72 h, of substantial amounts of nitrite (up to approximately 80 microM/100 mg wet tissue), which could be inhibited by at least 80% with various inhibitors of iNOS, including inhibitors of protein synthesis and transcription factor NF-kappa B, but which (unlike murine macrophage iNOS) was not sensitive to hydrocortisone or TGF-beta. Exposure of OA-affected cartilage to interleukin 1 beta, tumor necrosis factor-alpha, and lipopolysaccharide resulted in approximately 20-50% augmentation of nitrite accumulation, which was also sensitive to cycloheximide and pyrrolidine dithiocarbamate. Hence, our data indicate that OA-NOS (based on immunoreactivity and molecular weight) is similar to ncNOS and that it releases nitric oxide, which may contribute to the inflammation and pathogenesis of cartilage destruction in OA.