Laboratory and clinical reports indicate that opiate addicts are prone to infections. This effect of opiates is partly attributed to opiate-induced macrophage (Mphi) apoptosis. In the present study, we evaluated the role of transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta) in morphine-induced apoptosis of murine J774 cells and peritoneal Mphi. Mphi harvested from morphine-treated mice showed greater (P < 0. 0001) apoptosis when compared with control Mphi. Morphine also enhanced apoptosis of J774 cells and peritoneal Mphi. Anti-TGF-beta antibody inhibited (P < 0.001) the morphine-induced apoptosis in J774 cells (control 0.7 +/- 0.4%; 10-6 M morphine 23.5 +/- 0.7%; anti-TGF-beta antibody (Ab) + 10-6 M morphine 8.1 +/- 0.7%; apoptotic cells/field) and peritoneal Mphi (control 1.5 +/- 0.9%; 10-6 M morphine 29.1 +/- 1.4%; 10-6 M morphine + anti-TGF-beta Ab 19. 1 +/- 1.8%; apoptotic cells/field). TGF-beta enhanced (P < 0.001) apoptosis of J774 cells and peritoneal Mphi. TGF-beta also promoted Mphi DNA fragmentation into integer multiples of 180 bp (ladder pattern). Immunocytochemical studies revealed that morphine enhanced the Mphi cytoplasmic content of TGF-beta. In addition, Western blotting showed increased production of TGF-beta by morphine-treated J774 cells when compared with control cells. Morphine increased J774 cell expression of bax. Interestingly, morphine-induced bax expression was inhibited by anti-TGF-beta Ab. As both morphine-induced J774 cell apoptosis and bax expression were inhibited by anti-TGF-beta Ab, it appears that morphine-induced J774 cell apoptosis may be mediated through the generation of TGF-beta.