The aim of the present study was to investigate the expression of Fas in periarticular tenocytes of patients with osteoarthritis (OA) and to study their susceptibility to Fas ligand-mediated apoptosis. Tendon samples were obtained from the quadriceps femoris muscle of patients with knee OA and used for histological evaluation, for immunohistochemical detection of Fas, and to establish tenocyte cultures. The expression of Fas mRNA was determined by quantitative PCR. Levels of soluble Fas and soluble tumour necrosis factor (TNF) receptor I were measured using ELISA. Apoptosis was induced with recombinant human Fas ligand and measured by a histone fragmentation assay and flow cytometry. The effects of TNF-alpha were studied by stimulation with TNF-alpha alone or 24 hours before the induction of apoptosis. Tendon samples from non-OA patients were used as controls. Histological evaluation revealed degenerative changes in the tendons of all OA patients but not in the controls. Fas was detected by immunohistochemistry in all specimens, but quantitative PCR revealed significantly higher levels of Fas mRNA in OA tenocytes. In contrast, lower levels of soluble Fas were found in OA tenocytes by ELISA. OA tenocytes were significantly more susceptible to Fas ligand induced apoptosis than were control cells. TNF-alpha reduced the Fas ligand induced apoptosis in OA tenocytes but had no effects on control tenocytes. These data suggest that knee OA is associated with higher susceptibility of periarticular tenocytes to Fas ligand induced apoptosis because of higher expression of Fas but lower levels of apoptosis-inhibiting soluble Fas. These changes may contribute to decreased cellularity in degenerative tendons and promote their rupturing. The antiapoptotic effects of TNF-alpha in OA tenocytes most likely reflect regenerative attempts and must be taken into account when anti-TNF strategies are considered for OA.