Interleukin (IL)-9 is a pleiotropic cytokine that has been proposed as a candidate gene for asthma. As IL-9 expression is correlated with airway hyperresponsiveness in animals, we examined the effects of IL-9 on cultured human airway smooth muscle (HASM) cells. IL-9 alone had no effect on IL-8 release, but at concentrations of > or =30 ng/ml, IL-9 significantly increased IL-8 release induced by TNF-alpha. IL-9 increased phosphorylation of extracellular signal-regulated protein kinase (ERK, p42 and p44) in a concentration- and time-dependent fashion, and U-0126 (10 micro M), which inhibits ERK phosphorylation, abolished the synergism between TNF-alpha and IL-9 on IL-8 release. IL-9 alone had no effect on eotaxin release into HASM cell supernatants but at concentrations of > or =10 ng/ml caused an approximately 50% increase in release of eotaxin evoked by IL-13 (10 ng/ml). U-0126 blocked the synergism between IL-9 and IL-13 on eotaxin release. IL-9 had no effect on cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) expression or PGE(2) release and did not augment the COX-2 expression that was induced by IL-1beta. Our results indicate that airway smooth muscle is a target for IL-9 and that IL-9 amplifies the potential for these cells to recruit eosinophils and neutrophils into the airways by a mechanism involving ERK.