Leflunomide is an isoxazole with newly discovered immunosuppressive properties. Its mechanism of action operates later in the cell cycle than cyclosporine and appears to interfere with lymphocyte IL-2 responsiveness. With the encouraging results from in vitro and small-animal studies, we subjected leflunomide to the rigorous canine renal transplantation model in a dose response protocol. Thirty-eight female mongrel dogs underwent renal transplantation and bilateral nephrectomy. Immunosuppression was stratified from controls with no immunosuppression to monotherapy with leflunomide at 2, 4, 8, and 16 mg/kg/day given orally and in a combination therapy with cyclosporine. To evaluate its toxicity while maintaining a low constant blood level, eight dogs were treated by continuous intravenous infusion at doses of 2, 4, 6, and 8 mg/kg/day. The mean survival time for nonimmunosuppressed controls (n = 2) was 9 days, leflunomide 2 mg/kg/day (n = 2) was 9 days, leflunomide 4 mg/kg/day (n = 4) was 16 days, leflunomide 8 mg/kg/day (n = 5) was 28 days, leflunomide 16 mg/kg/day (n = 7) was 21 days. Cyclosporine alone at 10 mg/kg/day (n = 4) resulted in a mean survival time of 13 days. The mean survival time with the combination of cyclosporine 10 mg/kg/day with leflunomide 4 mg/kg/day (n = 6) was 68 days. The mean survival time for continuous intravenous leflunomide 2 mg/kg/day (n = 2) was 10 days; for leflunomide 4 mg/kg/day, 20 days; for leflunomide 6 mg/kg/day, 14 days; and leflunomide 8 mg/kg/day, 21 days. The mean serum trough levels of leflunomide ranged from 10 micrograms/ml at the 2 mg dose to 55 micrograms/ml for the 16 mg dose, levels that have been well tolerated in man. Leflunomide at 16 mg/kg/day reliably prevented acute allograft rejection, but the dogs died of inanition with normal renal function. Leflunomide at a nontoxic dose of 4 mg/kg/day extended survival to 16 days, but all dogs died of rejection. A combination of inadequate doses of leflunomide (4 mg/kg/day) and cyclosporine (10 mg/kg/day) resulted in all animals having normal renal function and weight for > or = 30 days. Even at a high dose of 16 mg/kg/day, no viral or bacterial infections were noted. These observations in a canine system add to the growing enthusiasm for the evaluation of leflunomide in human transplantation.