The effects of curcumin, an anti-inflammatory agent from Curcuma longa, on the proliferation of blood mononuclear cells and vascular smooth muscle cells were studied. Proliferative responses were determined from the uptake of tritiated thymidine. In human peripheral blood mononuclear cells, curcumin dose dependently inhibited the responses to phytohemagglutinin and mixed lymphocyte reaction at the dose ranges of 10(-6) to 3 x 10(-5) and 3 x 10(-6) to 3 x 10(-5) M, respectively. Curcumin (10(-6) to 10(-4) M) dose dependently inhibited the proliferation of rabbit vascular smooth muscle cells stimulated by fetal calf serum. Curcumin had a greater inhibitory effect on platelet-derived growth factor-stimulated proliferation than on serum-stimulated proliferation. Cinnamic acid, coumaric acid and ferulic acid were much less effective than curcumin as inhibitors of serum-induced smooth muscle cell proliferation, suggesting that the cinnamic acid and ferulic acid moieties alone are not sufficient for activity, and that the characteristics of the diferuloylmethane molecule itself are necessary for activity. Curcumin may be useful as a new template for the development of better remedies for the prevention of the pathological changes of atherosclerosis and restenosis.