Three inhibitors of calcium-dependent cyclic adenosine 3'5'-monophosphate (cAMP) dependent phosphodiesterase IV (PDE IV) were evaluated for their effects on lipopolysaccharide (LPS)-induced tumor necrosis factor (TNF) production in vitro and in vivo and for their ability to protect mice from LPS-induced lethality in D-galactosamine (D-gal) sensitized mice. In vitro, on LPS-stimulated murine peritoneal macrophages (PEM), BRL 61063 (1,3-di(cyclopropylmethyl)-8-aminoxanthine) and rolipram (4-(3-cyclopentyloxy-4-methoxyphenyl)-2-pyrrolidone) had similar TNF inhibitory activity with an IC50 ranging from 0.1 to 0.5 microM. Pentoxifylline (PTX), (3,7-dimethyl-1-(5-oxohexyl)xanthine) was less potent with an IC50 = 100 microM. In vivo, there was a rank order potency on serum TNF levels in LPS challenged D-gal sensitized mice. BRL 61063 inhibited TNF production with an ID50 of 0.1 mg/kg, rolipram at 1 mg/kg, and PTX at 200 mg/kg. Thus, BRL 61063 is 2,000 times more potent than PTX in reducing TNF serum levels in this model. Interestingly, TNF is implicated as having a central pathogenic role in the LPS/D-gal model, since survival of animals correlated directly with reduction of serum TNF levels for all three compounds tested. It is proposed that potent inhibitors of TNF may have therapeutic activity in disease states where TNF appears to play a role in the pathogenesis of the disease.