Abnormal traffic of proteins through the glomerular capillary has an intrinsic toxicity that results in tubular dysfunction and interstitial inflammation. It has been previously shown that in porcine proximal tubular cells high concentrations of albumin activated NF-kappaB, which is responsible for the enhanced synthesis of the inflammatory chemokine RANTES. This study investigates whether reactive oxygen species (ROS) served as second messengers in protein overload-induced NF-kappaB activation. Human proximal tubular cells (HK-2) were incubated (5 to 60 min) with human albumin and IgG (1 to 30 mg/ml). Both proteins induced a rapid or significant increase in hydrogen peroxide (H(2)O(2)) production at 5 min and persisting at 60 min. This effect was dose-dependent. The contribution of H(2)O(2) in regulating NF-kappaB activation was evaluated by using the antioxidants dimethyl-thiourea and pyrrolidine dithiocarbamate in protein-overloaded HK-2 cells. Both agents, by preventing H(2)O(2) generation, induced human albumin or IgG inhibited NF-kappaB activation. Stimulation of HK-2 with exogenous H(2)O(2) resulted in the activation of a NF-kappaB subunit pattern similar to that obtained after protein challenge. Specific inhibitors of protein kinase C (PKC) activity significantly prevented H(2)O(2) production and consequent NF-kappaB activation, suggesting that ROS generation in HK-2 cells occurs downstream of PKC activation. Either antioxidants or PKC inhibitor almost completely abolished the upregulation of the monocyte chemoattractant protein-1 gene induced by excess albumin, as evaluated by real-time PCR, thus supporting a role for PKC and ROS as critical signals for the expression of NF-kappaB-dependent inflammatory genes. To identify the enzymatic sources responsible for the increased H(2)O(2) production, the effect of dyphenyleneiodonium, an inhibitor of the membrane NADP(H) oxidase, was studied, as was the effect of rotenone, which blocks complex I of the mitochondrial respiratory chain. It was found that both agents significantly reduced the exaggerated H(2)O(2) induced by protein overload. These data indicate that exposure to excess proteins in proximal tubular cells induces the formation of ROS, which are responsible for NF-kappaB activation and consequent induction of NF-kappaB-dependent inflammatory signals.