Natural killer cell stimulatory factor (NKSF) or interleukin-12 (IL-12) is a heterodimeric cytokine with pleiomorphic effects on T and NK cells, including induction of lymphokine production, mitogenesis, and enhancement of spontaneous cytotoxic activity. Similarly to IL-2, NKSF/IL-12 enhances NK cell-mediated cytotoxicity within a few hours and independently from induced proliferation. This effect is independent from other induced cytokines, because it is not prevented by antibodies neutralizing interferon (IFN)-alpha, IFN-beta, IFN-gamma, IL-2 or tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha and, unlike the induction of IFN-gamma production by peripheral blood lymphocytes, it does not require HLA class II-positive accessory cells. Enhanced cytotoxicity is accompanied by morphologic changes in NK cells, including a significant increase in the number of cytoplasmic granules. In addition to the previously described ability to enhance the cytotoxic activity of NK cells against tumor-derived target cells, NKSF/IL-12 is also a potent stimulator of cytotoxicity against virus-infected cells, either fibroblasts acutely infected with herpes viruses or T cell lines chronically infected with human immunodeficiency virus-1. NK cell-mediated antibody-dependent cytotoxicity or anti-CD16 antibody-redirected lysis is not significantly enhanced by NKSF/IL-12. However, the ability of resting peripheral blood T cells to mediate anti-CD3 antibody-redirected lysis is enhanced by 18-h incubation with NKSF/IL-12, indicating that this lymphokine can modulate the cytotoxic capability of both NK and T cells.