1. The major pathological responses to Gram-negative bacterial sepsis are triggered by endotoxin or lipopolysaccharide. As endotoxin is shed from the bacterial outer membrane, it induces immunological responses that lead to release of a variety of cytokines and other cellular mediators. As part of a program aimed at developing a therapeutic agent for septic shock, we have developed E5531, a novel synthetic lipopolysaccharide antagonist. 2. As measured by release by tumour necrosis factor-alpha, human monocytes or whole blood can be activated by lipopolysaccharide, lipid A, and lipoteichoic acid (from Gram-positive bacteria). E5531 potently antagonizes activation by all these agents while itself being devoid of agonistic activity. 3. The inhibitory activity of E5531 was dependent on time of addition. When 10 nM E5531 was added simultaneously with lipopolysaccharide or 1 - 3 h before addition of lipopolysaccharide, production of tumour necrosis factor-alpha was inhibited by more than 98%. The addition of E5531 1 h after lipopolysaccharide reduced the efficacy of E5531 by 47%. 4. Antagonistic activity of E5531 was specific for lipopolysaccharide as it was ineffective at inhibiting interferon-gamma mediated NO release of RAW 264.7 cells, phorbor 12-myristate 13-acetate stimulated superoxide anion production in human neutrophils, concanavalin A stimulated mitogenic activity in murine thymocytes and tumor necrosis factor-alpha induced E-selectin expression in human umbilical vein endothelial cells. 5. E5531 as well as MY4, an anti-CD14 antibody, inhibited radiolabelled lipopolysaccharide binding in human monocytes. 6. These results support our contention that E5531 is a potent antagonist of lipopolysaccharide-induced release of tumour necrosis factor-alpha and other cellular mediators and may be an effective therapeutic agent for human septic shock due to Gram-negative bacteria.