Extracts of Homalanthus nutans, a plant used in Samoan herbal medicine, exhibited potent activity in an in vitro, tetrazolium-based assay which detects the inhibition of the cytopathic effects of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV-1). The active constituent was identified as prostratin, a relatively polar 12-deoxyphorbol ester. Noncytotoxic concentrations of prostratin from greater than or equal to 0.1 to greater than 25 microM protected T-lymphoblastoid CEM-SS and C-8166 cells from the killing effects of HIV-1. Cytoprotective concentrations of prostratin greater than or equal to 1 microM essentially stopped virus reproduction in these cell lines, as well as in the human monocytic cell line U937 and in freshly isolated human monocyte/macrophage cultures. Prostratin bound to and activated protein kinase C in vitro in CEM-SS cells and elicited other biochemical effects typical of phorbol esters in C3H10T1/2 cells; however, the compound does not appear to be a tumor promoter. In skin of CD-1 mice, high doses of prostratin induced ornithine decarboxylase only to 25-30% of the levels induced by typical phorbol esters at doses 1/30 or less than that used for prostratin, produced kinetics of edema formation characteristic of the nonpromoting 12-deoxyphorbol 13-phenylacetate, and failed to induce the acute or chronic hyperplasias typically caused by tumor-promoting phorbols at doses of 1/100 or less than that used for prostratin.