An inhibitor of the cytotoxic functions (ICF) mediated by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)- or HLA-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes, natural killer and lymphokine-activated killer (LAK) cells is secreted by CD8+CD57+ T lymphocytes, a subset expanded during infection with HIV and after bone marrow transplantation. We previously showed an apparent molecular mass of 20-30 kDa for this soluble glycosylated concanavalin A-binding inhibitor which is distinct from known cytokines. Here, we report a characterization of the mechanism of action of this CD8+CD57+ ICF. We show that the ICF-induced inhibition of LAK cell cytolytic activity is transient, with a spontaneous recovery of cytolytic potential after 18 h. When testing interactions of ICF with a large set of cytokines we found that the ICF-mediated inhibition of cytotoxic functions is antagonized by two cytokines: recombinant interleukin (rIL)-4 and recombinant interferon (rIFN)-gamma. Finally, we show that ICF acts at the level of cytolytic effector cells, where it induces a significant increase of cyclic AMP (cAMP) level. In contrast, no modification of either cell surface antigen expression or of target/effector cell conjugate formation could be evidenced. Addition of rIL-4 and rIFN-gamma reverses such an increase of cAMP levels and in parallel restores the cytolytic activity. Altogether, these data demonstrate that the glycoprotein ICF produced by CD8+CD57+ cells (1) inhibits cell-mediated cytotoxicity by sensitizing cytolytic effector cells to the cAMP pathway, and (2) is part of a cytokine network controlling cell-mediated cytotoxic functions.