We have investigated the role of p38MAPK in human airway smooth muscle (HASM) proliferation in response to thrombin and bFGF. The regulation of cyclin D1 mRNA, cyclin D1, cyclin E and p21Cip1 protein levels, and the extent of retinoblastoma protein (pRb) phosphorylation in response to activation of p38MAPK have also been examined. Two distinct inhibitors of p38MAPK, SB 203580 (10 microm) and SB 202190 (10 microm), prevented bFGF (0.3-3 nm)-stimulated cell proliferation, but had no effect on the response to thrombin (0.3-3 U ml(-1)). In cells incubated with thrombin or bFGF for 20 h, there was an increase in p38MAPK phosphorylation in response to bFGF, but not to thrombin. Thrombin and bFGF-stimulated increases in ERK phosphorylation and cyclin D1 mRNA and protein levels were not influenced by SB 203580 pre-treatment. Similarly, cyclin E and p21Cip1 protein levels, measured after 20 h incubation with mitogen, did not appear to be regulated by SB 203580 (10 microm). Although both thrombin and bFGF significantly increased levels of pRb phosphorylation, SB 203580 (10 microm) inhibited only bFGF-stimulated pRb phosphorylation. In addition, SB 203580 (10 microm) selectively inhibited bFGF-stimulated DNA synthesis, suggesting that the antimitogenic actions of SB 203580 on pRb phosphorylation cause cell cycle arrest at late G1 phase. In conclusion, these results indicate that p38MAPK is involved in bFGF-, but not in thrombin-stimulated HASM proliferation. The activation of the p38MAPK pathway by bFGF, but not by thrombin, regulates the phosphorylation of pRb without influencing cyclin D1 expression.