The selective import of phospholipids into cells could be mediated by proteins secreted from the cells into the extracellular compartment. We observed that the supernatants obtained from suspensions of thrombin-activated platelets stimulated the exchange of pyrene (py)-labeled sphingomyelin between lipid vesicles in vitro. The proteins with sphingomyelin transfer activity were purified and identified as the chemokine connective tissue-activating peptide III (CTAP-III) and platelet basic protein. Isolated CTAP-III stimulated the exchange of py-sphingomyelin between lipid vesicles but did not affect the translocations of py-labeled phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylethanolamine. CTAP-III rapidly increased the transfer of py-sphingomyelin from low density lipoproteins into peripheral blood lymphocytes, other immune cells, and fibroblasts. In the presence of heparin, CTAP-III was unable to insert sphingomyelin into the peripheral blood lymphocytes. The activation energy of the py-sphingomyelin transfer suggested that the translocation proceeded entirely in a hydrophobic environment. [(3)H]Sphingomyelin transferred to the cells by CTAP-III was hydrolyzed to [(3)H]ceramide and [(3)H]sphingosine after activation with tumor necrosis factor alpha. The generation of the [(3)H]sphingolipid messengers was catalyzed by acid sphingomyelinase. Our results identify CTAP-III as the first mediator of the selective (endocytosis-independent) cellular import of sphingomyelin allowing the paracrine modulation of the sphingolipid signaling.