The diamidine pentamidine is used to treat leishmaniasis, trypanosomiasis, and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. Treatment may be accompanied by prolongation of the QT interval of the electrocardiogram and torsades de pointes tachycardias. Up to now, it has been thought that therapeutic compounds causing QT prolongation are associated with direct block of the cardiac potassium channel human ether a-go-go-related gene (hERG), which encodes the alpha subunit of cardiac I(Kr) currents. We show that pentamidine has no acute effects on currents produced by hERG, KvLQT1/mink, Kv4.3, or SCNA5. Cardiac calcium currents and the guinea pig cardiac action potential were also not affected. After overnight exposure, however, pentamidine reduced hERG currents and inhibited trafficking and maturation of hERG with IC(50) values of 5 to 8 microM similar to therapeutic concentrations. Surface expression determined in a chemiluminescence assay was reduced on exposure to 10, 30, and 100 microM pentamidine by about 30, 40, and 70%, respectively. These effects were specific for hERG since expression of hKv1.5, KvLQT1/minK, and Kv4.3 was not altered. In isolated guinea pig ventricular myocytes, 10 microM pentamidine prolonged action potential duration APD(90) from 374.3 +/- 57.1 to 893.9 +/- 86.2 ms on overnight incubation. I(Kr) tail current density was reduced from 0.61 +/- 0.09 to 0.39 +/- 0.04 pA/pF. We conclude that pentamidine prolongs the cardiac action potential by block of hERG trafficking and reduction of the number of functional hERG channels at the cell surface. We propose that pentamidine, like arsenic trioxide, produces QT prolongation and torsades de pointes in patients by inhibition of hERG trafficking.