Staurosporine is the most potent inhibitor of protein kinase C (PKC) described in the literature with a half-maximal inhibitory concentration (IC50) of 10 nM. Nevertheless, this natural product is poorly selective when assayed against other protein kinases. In order to obtain specific PKC inhibitors, a series of bisindolylmaleimides has been synthesized. Structure-activity relationship studies allowed the determination of the substructure responsible for conferring high potency and lack of selectivity in the staurosporine molecule. Several aminoalkyl bisindolylmaleimides were found to be potent and selective PKC inhibitors (IC50 values from 5 to 70 nM). Among these compounds GF 109203X has been chosen for further studies aiming at the characterization of this chemical family. GF 109203X was a competitive inhibitor with respect to ATP (Ki = 14 +/- 3 NM) and displayed high selectivity for PKC as compared to five different protein kinases. We further determined the potency and specificity of GF 109203X in two cellular models: human platelets and Swiss 3T3 fibroblasts. GF 109203X efficiently prevented PKC-mediated phosphorylations of an Mr = 47,000 protein in platelets and of an Mr = 80,000 protein in Swiss 3T3 cells. In contrast, in the same models, the PKC inhibitor failed to prevent PKC-independent phosphorylations. GF 109203X inhibited collagen- and alpha-thrombin-induced platelet aggregation as well as collagen-triggered ATP secretion. However, ADP-dependent reversible aggregation was not modified. In Swiss 3T3 fibroblasts, GF 109203X reversed the inhibition of epidermal growth factor binding induced by phorbol 12,13-dibutyrate and prevented [3H] thymidine incorporation into DNA, only when this was elicited by growth promoting agents which activate PKC. Our results illustrate the potential of GF 109203X as a tool for studying the involvement of PKC in signal transduction pathways.