The inhibition of SAPK2a/p38 (a mitogen activated protein (MAP) kinase family member) by SB 203580 depends on the presence of threonine at residue 106. Nearly all other protein kinases are insensitive to this drug because a more bulky residue occupies this site (Eyers et al., 1998). Raf is one of the few protein kinases that possesses threonine at this position, and we show that SB 203580 inhibits c-Raf with an IC50 of 2 microM in vitro. However, SB 203580 does not suppress either growth factor or phorbol ester-induced activation of the classical MAP kinase cascade in mammalian cells. One of the reasons for this is that SB 203580 also triggers a remarkable activation of c-Raf in vivo (when measured in the absence of the drug). The SB 203580-induced activation of c-Raf occurs without any increase in the GTP-loading of Ras, is not prevented by inhibitors of the MAPK cascade, protein kinase C or phosphatidylinositide 3-kinase, and is not triggered by the binding of this drug to SAPK2a/p38. The paradoxical activation of c-Raf by SB 203580 (and by another structurally unrelated c-Raf inhibitor) suggests that inhibitors of the kinase activity of c-Raf may not be effective as anti-cancer drugs.