Rapamycin (Rapa), a recently introduced immunosuppressive drug, seems to be effective in preventing acute allograft rejection. Although its antiproliferative effect on T lymphocytes has been investigated extensively, its effect on the initiators of the immune response, the dendritic cells (DCs), is not known. Therefore, the effect of Rapa on monocyte- (mo-DCs) and CD34(+)-derived DCs in vitro but also on other myeloid cell types, including monocytes and macrophages, was examined. The present study shows that Rapa does not affect phenotypic differentiation and CD40L-induced maturation of mo-DCs. However, Rapa dramatically reduced cell recovery (40%-50%). Relatively low concentrations of Rapa (10(-9) M) induced apoptosis in both mo-DCs and CD34(+)-derived DCs, as visualized by phosphatidylserine exposure, nuclear condensation and fragmentation, and DNA degradation. In contrast, Rapa did not affect freshly isolated monocytes, macrophages, or myeloid cell lines. The sensitivity to Rapa-induced apoptosis was acquired from day 2 onward of mo-DC differentiation. Rapa exerts its apoptotic effect via a reversible binding to the cytosolic receptor protein FKBP-12, as demonstrated in competition experiments with FK506, which is structurally related to Rapa. Partial inhibition of Rapa-induced apoptosis was obtained by addition of ZVAD-fmk, which implies caspase-dependent and caspase-independent processes. The fact that Rapa exerts a specific effect on DCs but not on monocytes and macrophages might contribute to the unique actions of Rapa in the prevention of allograft rejection and other immune responses.