Studies on the influence of erythropoietin (EPO) on granulocyte or monocyte function are scant. In this study, the effect of EPO on polymorphonuclear cell (PMN) respiratory burst activity was evaluated in a double-blind, placebo-controlled study in 22 patients on maintenance hemodialysis. As an index of phagocyte respiratory burst activity, the increase in 14CO2 production from labeled glucose-1-C, after challenge with latex and zymosan, was measured on predialysis whole blood samples, before and after EPO-treatment. As controls, 56 nonuremics and 49 non-EPO-treated hemodialysis patients were evaluated. Before EPO treatment 14CO2 production was depressed to 75.7% (latex) and 54.6% (zymosan) of healthy controls (P less than 0.01). A marked improvement was observed after a mean treatment period of 4 months (latex, 115 +/- 12 to 172 +/- 14; zymosan, 178 +/- 19 to 412 +/- 36 dpm/10(3) PMN, P less than 0.01). Placebo treatment induced no changes. The improvement became more pronounced with prolongation of treatment. A significant correlation between hematocrit and 14CO2 production was observed in the EPO treatment group (latex: n = 44, r = 0.47, P less than 0.05; zymosan: n = 44, r = 0.57, P less than 0.001). No correlation was found with serum ferritin. We conclude that the depressed phagocyte glycolytic activity of hemodialyzed uremics is normalized during correction of anemia by EPO. This may be attributed to factors other than a reduction in the body iron stores.