Two naturally occurring lignanolides, isolated from the tropical climbing shrub Ipomoea cairica, (-)-arctigenin and (-)-trachelogenin, were found to inhibit strongly replication of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1; strain HTLV-III B) in vitro. At a concentration of 0.5 microM, (-)-arctigenin and (-)-trachelogenin inhibited the expression of HIV-1 proteins p17 and p24 by 80-90% and 60-70%, respectively. The reverse transcriptase activity in the culture fluids was reduced by 80-90% when the cells (HTLV-III B/H9) were cultivated in the presence of 0.5 microM (-)-arctigenin or 1 microM (-)-trachelogenin. At the same concentrations, the formation of syncytia in the HTLV-III B/H9-Jurkat cell system was inhibited by the compounds by more than 80%. A series of other lignan type compounds displayed no anti-HIV activity. Studying the molecular mechanism of action of (-)-arctigenin and (-)-trachelogenin we found that both compounds are efficient inhibitors of the nuclear matrix-associated DNA topoisomerase II activity, particularly of the enzyme from HIV-1-infected cells. Our results suggest that both compounds prevent the increase of topoisomerase II activity, involved in virus replication, after infection of cells with HIV-1.