Transforming growth factor beta is a potent immunomodulator with both pro- and antiinflammatory activities. Based on its immunosuppressive actions, exogenous TGF-beta has been shown to inhibit autoimmune and chronic inflammatory diseases. To further explore the potential therapeutic role of TGF-beta, we administered a plasmid DNA encoding human TGF-beta1 intramuscularly to rats with streptococcal cell wall-induced arthritis. A single dose of 300 microg plasmid DNA encoding TGF-beta1, but not vector DNA, administered at the peak of the acute phase profoundly suppressed the subsequent evolution of chronic erosive disease typified by disabling joint swelling and deformity (articular index = 8.17+/-0. 17 vs. 1.25+/-0.76, n = 6, day 26, P < 0.01). Moreover, delivery of the TGF-beta1 DNA even as the chronic phase commenced virtually eliminated subsequent inflammation and arthritis. Both radiologic and histopathologic as well as molecular evidence supported the marked inhibitory effect of TGF-beta1 DNA on synovial pathology, with decreases in the inflammatory cell infiltration, pannus formation, cartilage and bone destruction, and the expression of proinflammatory cytokines that characterize this model. Increases in TGF-beta1 protein were detected in the circulation of TGF-beta1 DNA-treated animals, consistent with the observed therapeutic effects being TGF-beta1 dependent. These observations provide the first evidence that gene transfer of plasmid DNA encoding TGF-beta1 provides a mechanism to deliver this potent cytokine that effectively suppresses ongoing inflammatory pathology in arthritis.