In an effort to elucidate the role of mechanical stimuli in rheumatoid arthritis, we determined mRNA levels of matrix metalloproteinase (MMP)-1, MMP-3, MMP-13, tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase (TIMP)-1 and TIMP-2, and three transcription factors (c-fos, ets-1, and ets-2) under two mechanical shearing conditions as well as simulated unloading. Human synovial cell cultures (MH7A and RA99-01), derived from rheumatoid arthritis patients, were grown for 1 h under mechanical stimuli and the transcript level was assayed by the reverse transcription-polymerase-chain reaction procedure. First, gentle shearing, estimated at approximately 1 dyn/cm(2), induced a consistent decrease in mRNA level of MMP-1, MMP-3, MMP-13, and ets-1 and an increase in the transcript level of TIMP-1, TIMP-2, c-fos, and ets-2. Second, intermediate shearing, estimated at approximately 6 dyn/cm(2), elevated the mRNA level of all MMPs, TIMPs, and the three transcription factors. Third, minimum mRNA level of c-fos, ets-1, and ets-2 was achieved under control conditions at rest, gentle shearing, and simulated unloading, respectively. These in vitro results support a stimulus-dependent transcriptional regulation of MMPs, TIMPs, and transcription factors in cell cultures, suggesting a potential role of shear stress in tissue degradation and prevention in rheumatic joints.