Pre-eclampsia (PE) is a pregnancy-specific syndrome of unknown aetiology. It is believed to involve an inflammatory process. The aim of the study was to investigate and compare the concentrations of two proinflammatory cytokines interleukin-6 (IL-6) and interleukin-1β (IL-1β) and to evaluate the possible interaction between them and human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) in women with normotensive pregnancy and PE. A prospective case-control study was carried out in 30 women with PE and 30 normotensive controls. Serum IL-1β, IL-6 and hCG levels were determined by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and automated immunofluorescent assay, respectively. Serum IL-6, IL-1β and hCG levels were significantly increased in women with PE compared to controls (P < 0.001 for each); however, no correlation was found between IL-6, IL-1β and hCG. Our results highlight the inflammatory origin of PE and reinforce the possible role of hCG in the complex aetiology of its pathogenesis. © 2011 John Wiley & Sons A/S.