The aim of this study was to elucidate the in vitro inhibitory potency of FK506 on production of the inflammatory cytokines, tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha and interleukin (IL)-1beta, with a view to assessing this immunosuppressive agent as a potential anti-rheumatic drug. We employed an in vitro model which produces TNF-alpha and IL-1beta through T cell activation. Human peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) were cultured with immobilized anti-CD3/CD28 monoclonal antibody in this model. FK506 inhibited anti-CD3/CD28 induced TNF-alpha and IL-1beta production at concentrations less than 1 ng ml(-1). Flow cytometric analysis of intracellular TNF-alpha and IL-1beta positive cells showed that FK506 potently suppresses inflammatory cytokine production from CD14+ monocytes as well as from T cells. Cyclosporin A (CsA) and dexamethasone (DEX) also inhibited the anti-CD3/CD28 induced cytokine production, but were less potent than FK506. FK506 and CsA, but not DEX, specifically inhibited anti-CD3/CD28 induced inflammatory cytokine production without affecting the lipopolysaccaride (LPS) induced effect. Methotrexate (MTX) was completely inactive for suppressing cytokine production under either condition. Anti-CD3/CD28 stimulated PBMC culture supernatants were found to enhance the expression of adhesion molecules in human vascular endothelial cells. FK506, CsA and DEX led to the suppression of adhesion molecule expression probably by inhibiting cytokine production from PBMC. The inhibitory potency of agents on TNF-alpha and IL-1beta production was compared with cytotoxicity and FK506 was not cytotoxic at concentrations several orders of magnitude greater than those required for cytokine inhibition. These results strongly suggest that FK506 may be most effective to specifically prevent T cell activation mediated inflammatory cytokine production in a clinical setting.