P-glycoprotein, encoded by the MDR1 (multidrug resistance) gene, is a transmembrane efflux pump for various lipophilic compounds. MDR1 is expressed in several types of normal human tissues and in a variety of tumors, where its expression has been correlated with resistance to chemotherapy. Some P-glycoprotein-overexpressing multidrug-resistant cell lines contain elevated amounts of protein kinase C (PKC). PKC activation was shown to increase the level of drug resistance in several cell lines, but the functional association of PKC with P-glycoprotein-mediated multidrug resistance remains unclear. We have studied the effects of lymphocyte-activating agents on P-glycoprotein activity in normal human lymphocytes, and found that 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA), an efficient agonist of PKC, increased the activity as well as the levels of P-glycoprotein in these cells. TPA also increased P-glycoprotein expression in several cell lines derived from different types of leukemias and solid tumors. The increase in MDR1 gene expression was observed at both the protein and RNA levels. Induction of MDR1 mRNA was apparent as early as two hours after the addition of TPA. Diacylglycerol (DAG), a physiological stimulant of PKC, also increased the expression of MDR1 mRNA and P-glycoprotein. The induction of MDR1 expression by TPA and DAG was suppressed by staurosporine, a protein kinase inhibitor. The results suggest that MDR1 gene expression in different cell types is regulated by a PKC-mediated pathway. This finding has implications for the emergence of multidrug resistance in vitro and in vivo.