Some renal changes associated with cyclosporine, such as tubular vacuolization and glomerular thrombosis, have also been reported with FK506. Furthermore, FK506 therapy is associated with a decrease in glomerular filtration rate and renal plasma flow and an increase in renal vascular resistance. We studied the in vitro tubular cell sensitivity to FK506 in comparison with CsA, the ultrastructural changes induced by FK506 and CsA, and the effect of both drugs on tubular cell growth in vitro. We also investigated whether FK506 and CsA induced endothelin-1 (ET-1) secretion of cultured tubular cells and whether this stimulatory effect coincided with a change in the endothelin systemic synthesis. Exposure of tubular cells to high concentrations of FK506 or CsA (10, 50, 100 microM) induced a time- and dose-dependent cell injury in vitro. The damage induced by FK506 and CsA was characterized by a direct cytotoxic effect on tubular cells, as expressed by release of 3H thymidine from prelabeled cells, N-acetyl-beta-D-glucosaminidase release, and cell detachment. Ultrastructural changes (vacuolizations, swelling, and mitochondrial enlargement) and inhibition of the growth of cultured tubular cells were also observed at high concentrations of FK506 and CsA. Low concentrations of FK506 and CsA (1, 0.1, 0.01, 0.001 microM) were not cytotoxic and induced only a minimal inhibitory effect on the growth of tubular cells in vitro. We demonstrated that FK506 (1, 0.1, 0.01 microM) time-dependently stimulated the secretion of endothelin by cultured tubular cells. CsA 10, 1, 0.1, 0.01 also exerted an enhancing effect on ET-1 secretion in cultured tubular cells. We observed that the concentration of CsA that induced the most important enhancing effect was 10 or 100 times higher than that required for FK506 to observe the same effect. The concentrations of FK506 or CsA that induced ET-1 secretion were not cytolytic for tubular cells in vitro. FK506- or CsA-treated rats showed an increase in serum level of ET-1 in comparison with the control. Through the stimulatory effect on endothelin secretion by tubular cells, FK506 and CsA may induce a perturbation of renal hemodynamics. Concentrations of FK506 and CsA, higher than established serum levels but close to those reached in tissues, are cytotoxic for tubular cells and induced ultrastructural changes and a significant delayed regeneration.