We reported previously that tumor cells isolated from metastases of the in vitro transformed squamous cell carcinoma line Pam 212 exhibit an elevation in constitutive production of proinflmmatory cytokines interleukin (IL)-1alpha, IL-6, granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor, and KC (the murine homologue of chemokine Gro-alpha). The basis for constitutive expression of these cytokines after tumor progression in vivo is unknown. Regulation of the expression of these proinflammatory cytokines involves transcription factor nuclear factor kappaB (NF-kappaB), which can be activated by cytokines such as tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha. In this study, we compared the constitutive and TNF-alpha-induced expression of proinflammatory cytokines in parental Pam 212 and metastatic LY-2 and LY-8 cell lines and determined the relationship of cytokine expression to activation of NF-kappaB. We found that the metastatic cell lines exhibited an increase in constitutive and TNF-alpha-inducible expression of proinflammatory cytokines when compared with parental Pam 212 cells. The increased cytokine expression was associated with an increase in constitutive and TNF-alpha-inducible activation of NF-kappaB as demonstrated by electrophoretic mobility shift assay and luciferase-reporter gene assay. Constitutive nuclear localization of NF-kappaB p65 was observed in LY-2 and LY-8 cells in culture and in tumor specimens but rarely in Pam 212 cells, consistent with the constitutive activation of NF-kappaB in tumor cels after selection in vivo. Induction of NF-kappaB by TNF-alpha was inhibited by the addition of protease inhibitors calpain inhibitor I and N-tosyl-phechloromethyl ketone and antioxidant 1-pyrrolidinecarbodithioic acid, whereas constitutive activation of NF-kappaB and cytokine KC mRNA expression was inhibited by N-tosyl-phechloromethyl ketone alone. Overexpression of a human Ikappa(B)alpha dominant suppresser in Pam 212 cells inhibited TNF-alpha-induced NF-kappaB binding activity and KC expression. These data indicate that activation of NF-kappaB contributes to increased expression of proinflammatory cytokines during metastatic tumor progression of squamous cell carcinoma, and that distinct mechanisms may be involved in the regulation of constitutive and TNF-alpha-induced activation of NF-kappaB in squamous cell carcinoma.