To evaluate the role of intracellular calcium and particularly Ca2+-uptake in the initiation of lymphocyte mitogenesis, the effect of mibefradil, which blocks both L- and T-type calcium channels with a more selective blockade of T-type channels, on the proliferation of human peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) is compared with the effect of nifedipine, which blocks only the L-type calcium channel. The rate of [3H]thymidine incorporation into control and concanavalin A-stimulated PBMCs in the presence or absence of the calcium channel blockers mibefradil or nifedipine (1, 10, or 50 microM), and of the intracellular calcium antagonist 3,4,5-trimethoxybenzoic acid 8-(diethylamino) octyl ester (TMB-8; 1, 10, 25, or 50 microM) was assayed in the cells cultured for 3 days. The cellular cytotoxicity and the cell number in growing cultures also was determined in mibefradil- or nifedipine-treated control or stimulated cells. Restoration of the proliferative response in mibefradil- or nifedipine-treated cells was investigated by addition of exogenous interleukin-2. Interleukin-2-receptor expression in the cells was monitored by using anti-activated T-cell antigen (Tac) antibody, and the interleukin-2 production in the cell supernatants of the cultures was determined by an enzyme-amplified sensitive immunoassay. Mibefradil and nifedipine concentration-dependently reduced the cell number and the [3H]thymidine incorporation or the de novo DNA synthesis in control and concanavalin A-stimulated human PBMCs. Mibefradil exhibited a more pronounced inhibition of the proliferation of human PBMCs than did nifedipine. The inhibitory effect of mibefradil or nifedipine on DNA synthesis was dependent on the timing of treatment with the drugs. The inhibitory effect of mibefradil or nifedipine on the lymphoproliferative response was nearly abolished if the drugs were added 20 h after cell stimulation. A markedly reduced inhibitory effect was found when mibefradil or nifedipine was added 1-7 h after cell stimulation. However, regardless of time of addition, TMB-8 caused a persistent inhibition of the proliferation of human PBMCs. The inhibitory effect of mibefradil or nifedipine on the proliferation of human PBMCs is nearly abolished by addition of the calcium channel activator Bay K 8644. The proliferative response of mibefradil- or nifedipine-treated cells is restored by addition of exogenous interleukin-2. The normal expression of interleukin-2 receptors was preserved, whereas the interleukin-2 production was blocked in the presence of mibefradil or nifedipine. Our data show that mibefradil has a more pronounced inhibitory effect on the proliferation of human PBMCs than nifedipine and that this inhibitory effect on DNA synthesis is dependent on the timing of treatment with both drugs.