The role of leukotrienes in the pathogenesis of chronic colitis was investigated using a rat model. Ulceration and inflammation of the distal colon was initiated by the intracolonic administration of the hapten trinitrobenzene sulfonic acid in 50% ethanol. Leukotriene B4 synthesis increased significantly within 4 h after induction of damage, with the greatest increase observed 24-72 h after administration of the hapten. The increase in leukotriene B4 synthesis correlated well (r = 0.88) with an increase in colonic myeloperoxidase activity, a biochemical marker of neutrophil infiltration. Daily intracolonic treatment with a specific 5-lipoxygenase inhibitor, L651,392, during the first 4 days after initiation of colitis, resulted in significant reductions of colonic leukotriene B4 synthesis, colonic damage score, and colon wet weight. When examined 2 wk after initiation of colitis, the group treated with L651,392 (for the first 4 days) showed significantly less colonic damage (assessed macroscopically and histologically) and colonic inflammation (assessed histologically and by measurement of myeloperoxidase activity). The healing produced by treatment with L651,392 was comparable to that observed after treatment with 5-aminosalicylic acid in a similar manner. Although a reduction of colonic damage could be produced in this model by intracolonic pretreatment with a prostaglandin E1 analogue (rioprostil), the mechanism of action of L651,392 did not appear to be through prevention of the initial injury induced by the hapten and ethanol solution. These results demonstrate that inhibition of leukotriene synthesis results in a marked acceleration of the healing of colonic ulcers and resolution of colonic inflammation in this animal model of chronic colitis. The results are therefore consistent with the hypothesis that leukotrienes play an important role in the pathogenesis of intestinal inflammation.