The relationship between the phospholipase-stimulating and immunosuppressive properties of the riminophenazine anti-mycobacterial agent clofazimine and its experimental analogue, B669, has been investigated in vitro. At concentrations of 0.6 microM and upwards, both riminophenazines, particularly B669, caused dose-related inhibition of mitogen- and alloantigen-stimulated uptake of tritiated thymidine by human mononuclear leucocytes (MNL), while in short-term assays both agents increased the release of lysophosphatidylcholine (LPC) and arachidonic acid from these cells. Arachidonate per se at a concentration of 20 microM did not affect mitogen-activated lymphocyte proliferation, while cyclooxygenase and 5'-lipoxygenase inhibitors, as well as water- and lipid-soluble oxidant-scavengers and anti-oxidant enzymes, failed to protect the cells against the anti-proliferative effects of clofazimine and B669. However, LPC caused dose-related inhibition of lymphocyte proliferation. Moreover, co-incubation of NML with alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E), a lysophospholipid complex-forming agent, or with lysophospholipase, protected the cells against clofazimine and B669, as well as against LPC. Na+, K(+)-adenosine triphosphatase was identified as the primary target of riminophenazine/LPC-mediated inhibition of lymphocyte proliferation. Excessive release of anti-proliferative lysophospholipids during clofazimine or B669 treatment of mitogen- or antigen-activated lymphocytes is the probable biochemical mechanism of the immunosuppressive activity of these agents.