Acute interstitial nephritis (AIN) is a common pattern of renal injury induced by therapeutic agents. In order to characterize the types of mononuclear leukocytes infiltrating the kidney in drug-induced interstitial nephritis, a panel of monoclonal antibodies (Leu1, Leu3a, OKT8, OKM1, Leu14, OKT17, IL-2) was applied to cryostat sections of 13 renal biopsies (five non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents (NSAID) (Group I); five beta-lactam antibiotics (Group II), 3 miscellaneous (Group III]. The majority of infiltrating mononuclear leukocytes were Leu1-positive T cells (71.7 +/- 18.7%), followed by monocytes (15.2 +/- 7.7%) and B cells (7.4 +/- 9.1%). Leu3a/OKT8 ratio was 0.954 +/- 0.341. Rare cells reacted with antibody to the interleukin-2 receptor (1.4 +/- 1.2%). No statistically significant differences could be found in the percentages of T lymphocytes, B lymphocytes, monocytes, activated (IL-2+) T cells or Leu3a/OKT8 (helper/suppressor) ratios in the three groups. In Group II, the following pathologic correlations were seen: Leu3a/OKT8 versus interstitial inflammation (R = -0.848), percent Leu3a versus interstitial inflammation (R = -0.818), percent OKT17 versus tubulitis (R = 0.785), percent Leu14 versus tubular atrophy (R = -0.891), and interstitial edema (R = 0.965). Our findings support a role for cellular immune mechanisms in the pathogenesis of AIN related to both NSAIDs and beta-lactam antibiotics.