The aim of the present study was to investigate a systemic induction of bone formation in rats by immunosuppression with FK506 (1 mg/kg body weight intraperitoneally [ip]) in a model of osteoinduction of isogeneic and xenogeneic demineralized bone matrix (DBM) for a period of 28 days. In particular, alterations of in vitro cytokine synthesis and changes of lymphocyte subsets were studied. DBM was implanted intramuscularly in the abdominal wall of Lewis rats (seven per group). Blood was sampled on days -7, 0, 7, and 28 for determination of in vitro tumor necrosis factor a (TNF-alpha) synthesis and lymphocyte subsets by flow cytometry (CD3+, CD4+, CD8+, CD45+, ED9+, and Ia+ antibodies). Ossicles of de novo formed bone and the tibias were removed on day 28 after double tetracycline labeling for histomorphometric analysis. Immunosuppression with FK506 significantly decreased lipopolysaccharide (LPS)-stimulated in vitro cytokine synthesis after 7 days and 28 days (p < 0.05). Compared with control animals FK506 treatment significantly increased the volume of induced bone in isogeneic (2.1 +/- 0.3 mm3 vs. 10.8 +/- 0.9 mm3) and xenogeneic (O mm3 vs. 4.7 +/- 0.8 mm3) DBM. Bone histomorphometry of the tibias revealed that immunosuppression increased both bone formation and bone resorption, accompanied by a significant reduction in the relative trabecular area (Tb.Ar). FK506 caused a decrease in the counts of CD8+ T cells probably because of destruction or dislocation of these cells. This suggests that the amount of CD8+ cells and the degree of T cell activation in terms of mean fluorescence intensity (MFI) may be associated with bone metabolism. In support of this, statistical analysis revealed a significant positive correlation between parameters of bone formation as well as bone resorption and the CD4+/CD8+ ratio. There was a significant negative correlation between parameters of remodeling of the metaphysis of the tibia and induced bone volume (BV), respectively, and MFI values of CD3+/Ia+ cells. These findings suggest an important role of T lymphocytes in bone formation and bone resorption in vivo. FK506 caused a marked increase of bone formation in DBM. However, the conclusion that immunosuppression increases fracture healing warrants further investigation.