To identify tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha immunopositive cells, third trimester human placental bed biopsies were selected from nine normotensive control women, 16 severely pre-eclamptic patients and seven patients with pre-existing hypertension with superimposed pre-eclampsia. In addition, five first and early second trimester specimens were included in the study. Immunostaining was performed with a mouse IgG1 monoclonal antibody (J1D9) reactive specifically with human TNF-alpha (1:300 ascitic fluid), using a biotin-streptavidin-peroxidase technique. Variable staining of stromal cells was noted in all biopsies. Specimens of early pregnancy showed marked immunostaining for TNF-alpha on proliferating tips of anchoring villi, invasive interstitial cytotrophoblast (but not the multinuclear giant cells), and endovascular trophoblast invading the spiral arteries. At term, weak staining was found in trophoblast incorporated within spiral artery walls. In biopsies from pre-eclamptic patients, spiral arteries without physiological change showed very little staining except in atherotic vessels where the infiltrated lipophages often showed intense immunolabelling. The marked presence of TNF-alpha in extravillous cytotrophoblast of young specimens is suggestive of a role in early invasion. Immunostaining of foam cells in non-invaded spiral arteries in pre-eclampsia at or near-term indicates a potential role of this cytokine in the development of atherotic lesions.