The class II major histocompatibility (MHC) genes encode cell surface heterodimers that present processed antigen to CD4 positive T-cells. The class II genes are expressed constitutively on B-cells and can be induced by IFN-gamma on a variety of other cell types. Because the class II genes are aberrantly expressed on many mesenchymal tumors, which are frequently defective for the retinoblastoma tumor suppressor protein (RB), we investigated the role of RB in the regulation of HLA-DR and -DP. The RB defective breast carcinomas cell line, MDA-468-S4 (S4), as well as S4 subclones reconstituted with RB coding sequences under the control of a zinc inducible promoter, were treated with IFN-gamma and examined for DR and DP expression. Surface DR is not inducible in S4 cells, but inducibility is rescued by RB. DP is only slightly inducible in S4, but inducible to a much higher level in the RB positive subclones of S4. IFN-gamma induction of DR and DP mRNAs are correspondingly dependent on RB. IFN-gamma receptors are present on S4 cells, and the guanylate binding protein and ICAM-1 genes respond to IFN-gamma, ruling out the possibility that all IFN-gamma signal transduction pathways are defective in S4 cells. These data indicate RB regulates the coordinate response of class II genes to IFN-gamma. Possible roles for RB in this process are discussed, as well as the role of the class II-noninducible phenotype in tumor rejection.