A critical step in the mechanism of action of inflammatory cytokines is the stimulation of sphingolipid metabolism, including activation of sphingosine kinase (SK), which produces the mitogenic and proinflammatory lipid sphingosine 1-phosphate (S1P). We have developed orally bioavailable compounds that effectively inhibit SK activity in vitro in intact cells and in cancer models in vivo. In this study, we assessed the effects of these SK inhibitors on cellular responses to tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFalpha) and evaluated their efficacy in the dextran sulfate sodium (DSS) model of ulcerative colitis in mice. Using several cell systems, it was shown that the SK inhibitors block the ability of TNFalpha to activate nuclear factor kappa B (NFkappaB), induce expression of adhesion proteins, and promote production of prostaglandin E(2) (PGE(2)). In an acute model of DSS-induced ulcerative colitis, SK inhibitors were equivalent to or more effective than Dipentum in reducing disease progression, colon shortening, and neutrophil infiltration into the colon. The effects of SK inhibitors were associated with decreased colonic levels of inflammatory cytokines TNFalpha, interleukin (IL)-1beta, interferon gamma (IFN)-gamma, IL-6, and reduction of S1P levels. A similar reduction in disease progression was provided by SK inhibitors in a chronic model of ulcerative colitis in which the mice received 3-week-long cycles of DSS interspaced with week-long recovery periods. In the chronic model, immunohistochemistry for SK showed increased expression in DSS-treated mice (compared with water-treated controls) that was reduced by drug treatment. S1P levels were also elevated in the DSS group and significantly reduced by drug treatment. Together, these data indicate that SK is a critical component in inflammation and that inhibitors of this enzyme may be useful in treating inflammatory bowel diseases.