The endothelium-associated enzyme xanthine oxidase is known to generate reactive oxygen intermediates which may damage the surrounding tissue. We investigated whether reactive oxygen intermediates released by xanthine oxidase exert a toxic effect on isolated rat islet cells. The xanthine oxidase (25 mU/ml)/hypoxanthine (0.5 mmol/l) system released reactive oxygen intermediates in vitro as detected by luminol in a chemiluminescence analysing system. The addition of nicotinamide inhibited the release of reactive oxygen intermediates in a dose-dependent manner (50% inhibition at 20 mmol/l). Exposure of islet cells to enzyme generated reactive oxygen intermediates caused lysis of 39% of the cells within 15 h. Monitoring the mitochondrial function of islet cells by the conversion of tetrazolium bromide to its formazan product revealed a significant reduction of the respiratory activity down to 51% of that of the controls by 30 min after the initiation of the xanthine oxidase reaction. Mitochondrial dysfunction preceded plasma membrane damage. The addition of nicotinamide, a radical scavenger and inhibitor of the DNA repair enzyme poly(ADP-ribose) synthetase protected the islet cells from lysis and partially preserved their mitochondrial activity in the presence of reactive oxygen intermediates. We conclude that activation of the endothelial enzyme xanthine oxidase, known to be induced by mediators of immune cells or by episodes of ischaemia and reperfusion causes islet cell damage with subsequent cell death in early phases of pancreatic islet cell destruction.