The formation of macrophage-derived foam cells is central to the development of fatty streaks within the arterial wall, and to the progression of atherosclerosis. The unregulated deposition of cholesteryl esters, as lipid droplets within the cytoplasm of these cells, is responsible for the formation of foam cells; this process is thought to be regulated by the balance between cholesterol esterification, by acyl CoA:cholesterol acyltransferase (ACAT), and hydrolysis, by neutral cholesteryl ester hydrolase (nCEH). This study examines the importance of the balance between these two enzymes in determining the efflux of cholesterol from human (THP-1) macrophages. The presence of modified lipoprotein, or of 25-hydroxycholesterol, markedly increased cholesterol esterification in these cells and these effects were potently inhibited by the presence of the ACAT inhibitor, 447C88. In the absence of HDL, an acceptor particle, there was little or no hydrolysis of the cholesteryl ester pool and no efflux of cholesterol to the extracellular milieu; addition of HDL led to a partial (36%) reduction in cholesteryl esters, an effect which was not enhanced by the inhibition of ACAT. This suggested that the stored cholesteryl esters in human (THP-1) macrophages, unlike those in mouse peritoneal macrophages, were relatively resistant to removal by efflux to HDL. Efflux of newly synthesised free cholesterol from these macrophages was increased by HDL in a saturable manner, suggesting that the lack of reduction of stored cholesteryl esters was due to impaired mobilisation of cholesteryl esters to free cholesterol via nCEH. Indeed, nCEH activity in these macrophages was much lower than in mouse peritoneal macrophages, and appeared to be down-regulated in the presence of 25-hydroxycholesterol or modified lipoproteins; this loss of nCEH activity was prevented by the ACAT inhibitor 447C88. The efflux of stored cholesteryl esters from THP-1 macrophages therefore appears to be limited by the activity of nCEH.