Nitric oxide (NO) is an important inflammatory mediator in nonhuman animal models of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The purpose of the present study was to determine whether blood mononuclear cells from patients with active RA (as compared to control subjects) have higher levels of NO synthase type 2 (NOS2) and produce more NO in vitro. Leukocytes from 25 RA patients and 20 normal subjects were examined. Arthritis activity was assessed by tender and swollen joint counts, duration of morning stiffness, patient assessment of pain, physician and patient global assessment of disease activity, the modified Stanford Health Assessment Questionnaire, and by blood levels of acute phase reactants. Blood mononuclear cell NOS enzyme activity/antigen content and nitrite/nitrate formation in vitro were measured. Blood mononuclear cells from RA patients had increased NOS activity and increased NOS2 antigen content as compared to those from normal subjects, and responded to interferon-gamma with increased NOS expression and nitrite/nitrate production in vitro. NOS activity of freshly isolated blood mononuclear cells correlated significantly with disease activity, as assessed by render and swollen joint counts. Our results demonstrate that patients with RA have systemic activation for NOS2 expression, and that the degree of activation correlates with disease activity. Increased NOS2 expression and NO generation may be important in the pathogenesis of RA.