Degradation of the atherosclerotic plaque extracellular matrix could destabilize the lesion, rendering it more prone to rupture. Both macrophages and vascular smooth muscle cells (SMCs) are potential sources of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), secreted enzymes that can digest vascular matrix. We explored interactions between human vascular SMCs and human monocytes that result in the secretion of interstitial collagenase (MMP-1) and stromelysin (MMP-3). Monocytes alone or those treated with SMC-conditioned media did not secrete these metalloproteinases as detectable by Western blot analysis. SMCs increased secretion of both MMP-1 and MMP-3 greater than 20-fold when cocultured with monocytes or when treated with monocyte-conditioned media. Addition of macrophage colony stimulating factor (< or = 1000 U/mL) to cocultures of monocytes and SMCs did not affect metalloproteinase secretion. Recombinant interleukin (IL)-1 receptor antagonist inhibited MMP-1 and MMP-3 induction in SMC cultures treated with monocyte-conditioned media (94% and 96% reduction, respectively), while a neutralizing antibody to tumor necrosis factor-alpha had no significant effect on metalloproteinase secretion. In contrast to the induction by monocyte-conditioned media of MMP-1 and MMP-3 secretion by SMCs, monocyte-conditioned media did not increase secretion of 72-kD gelatinase (MMP-2). Thus, monocytes induce MMP-1 and MMP-3 secretion by vascular SMCs through an IL-1-dependent mechanism. This response of SMCs to a defined macrophage product may contribute to plaque destabilization by mononuclear phagocytes in the lesion.