Superoxide radicals produced by phagocytic cells are considered to be important mediators in the rheumatoid inflammation. The effect of the gold compounds auranofin (AF) and gold sodium thiomalate (GST) on superoxide production by human leukocytes was investigated in two models of immunologic injury: immune-complex phagocytosis and frustrated phagocytosis. In both systems, AF (0.5-1.0 micrograms Au/ml) showed a potent inhibitory activity on superoxide generation, quantitated by ferricytochrome c and NBT reduction. GST showed only modest inhibition at higher concentrations (100 microM). The thiol protecting agent dithiothreitol, 1 mM, completely blocks the inhibitory effect of AF. The inhibition of the oxy radical generation by AF may play an important role in the control of rheumatoid inflammation; it is suggested that this action might be mediated through sulfhydryl-AF interaction at the cellular membrane level.