Cigarette smoking is the major risk factor for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a syndrome characterized by pulmonary neutrophil infiltration, chronic inflammation, and progressive tissue destruction. We examined here the acute effect of aqueous cigarette smoke extract (CSE) and of two alpha,beta-unsaturated aldehydes (acrolein and crotonaldehyde) contained in CSE in cultured normal human lung fibroblasts and small airway epithelial cells. By examining a panel of 19 cytokines and chemokines, we found that IL-8 release was elevated by CSE as well as by acrolein, whereas other inflammatory mediators were mostly unaffected. CSE-evoked IL-8 release was mimicked by acrolein and crotonaldehyde at concentrations (3-60 microM each) found in CSE and fully prevented by 1 mM alpha,beta-unsaturated aldehydes scavengers N-acetylcysteine (NAC) or sodium 2-mercaptoethanesulfonate. Neither the saturated aldehyde acetaldehyde nor H(2)O(2) evoked IL-8 release. In addition, CSE or crotonaldehyde upregulated the release of IL-8 from alveolar macrophages from both COPD patients and healthy nonsmokers, indicating that this is a response common to cells involved in lung inflammation. CSE-evoked IL-8 release was accompanied by increased phosphorylation of p38 MAPK and ERK1/2. CSE-evoked p38 and ERK1/2 phosphorylation was mimicked by acrolein and inhibited by NAC. IL-8 release elicited by both acrolein and CSE was blocked by pharmacological inhibition of p38 and ERK1/2 phosphorylation. In summary, our data show that alpha,beta-unsaturated aldehydes-evoked phosphorylation of p38 and ERK1/2 underlies IL-8 release elicited by CSE, thus shedding light on the mechanisms through which cigarette smoke can initiate inflammation in the lung.