Cyclooxygenase (COX)-2, the inducible form of the rate-limiting enzyme for prostaglandin synthesis, is up-regulated in gastrointestinal cancers and is a key mediator of epithelial cell growth. Helicobacter pylori is causally linked to gastric cancer. In H. pylori gastritis, COX-2 expression localizes to the subepithelial region, with variable levels in the epithelium. In contrast, in gastric cancer, COX-2 strongly predominates in the epithelium, suggesting that the transition to consistent epithelial COX-2 overexpression may be a critical molecular event in gastric carcinogenesis. Because aberrant promoter methylation inhibits expression of a variety of genes in gastrointestinal cancers, we sought to determine whether methylation of the COX-2 promoter could regulate the response to H. pylori in gastric epithelial cells. We assessed COX-2 expression and promoter methylation status in six gastric epithelial cell lines. In all four of the cell lines that exhibited basal expression of COX-2 and a significant increase in expression in response to H. pylori, the COX-2 promoter was unmethylated, whereas in the two cell lines that did not express COX-2, the COX-2 promoter was methylated. Treatment of COX-2-methylated cells with the demethylating agent 5-azacytidine had a modest effect on COX-2 expression, but when 5-azacytidine-treated cells were subsequently stimulated with H. pylori, there was a significant, 5-10-fold enhancement of both COX-2 mRNA and protein expression and release of the COX-2 product, prostaglandin E2. In contrast, in COX-2-expressing cell lines that were unmethylated at the COX-2 promoter, 5-azacytidine had no effect on H. pylori-stimulated COX-2 expression. These findings suggest that loss of COX-2 methylation may facilitate COX-2 expression and promote gastric carcinogenesis associated with H. pylori infection.