Culture supernatant (SN) was obtained from the monolayer of the MRL104.8a thymic stromal cell clone. This SN alone induced proliferation of helper T-cell (Th) clones because it contained IL-7. However, addition of the SN to cultures of Th stimulated with antigen plus antigen-presenting cells (APC) resulted in potent inhibition of their proliferation. This suppression was ascribed to a factor (designated thymic stroma-derived T-cell inhibitory factor, TSTIF) that is contained in the MRL104.8a SN and distinct from IL-7. TSTIF affected antigen-stimulated proliferation of both type 1 helper (Th1) and type 2 helper (Th2) T-cell clones. The TSTIF effect was also observed by the presence of the MRL104.8a SN only in the initial 24 hr pre-culture during the entire course (48-72 hr) of antigenic stimulation. Pre-exposure of Th cells to the SN in the absence of Ag/APC induced their proliferation upon stimulation with Ag/APC in the next 48 hr cultures. However, pre-cultures of Th cells with the SN in the presence of APC alone (without antigen) resulted in potent inhibition of the subsequent Ag/APC-stimulated proliferation. Interaction of TSTIF with APC but not with responding Th cells was further demonstrated in the following experiment: APC alone were exposed to the MRL104.8a SN and used for stimulation of Th that had not been exposed to the SN. Such an APC population exhibited a remarkably reduced capacity to induce antigen-stimulated Th proliferation when compared to that induced by freshly prepared APC or APC cultured in the absence of the MRL104.8a SN. These results indicate that TSTIF exerts its inhibitory effect on the antigen-stimulated T-cell proliferation by acting on APC.