Increased cyclic AMP-phosphodiesterase activity in peripheral blood leukocytes is associated with the immune and inflammatory hyperreactivity that characterizes atopic dermatitis. Atopic phosphodiesterase has high sensitivity to a variety of enzyme inhibitors, suggesting an increased therapeutic advantage. The objective of this study was to use in vitro assays to identify a potent phosphodiesterase inhibitor and then to investigate its effectiveness in treating atopic dermatitis. Leukocyte enzyme activity was measured by radioenzyme assay, whereas prostaglandin E2 and interleukins 10 (IL-10) and 4 (IL-4) were measured in 24-h culture supernatants of mononuclear leukocytes by immunoassays. The effect of a topical phosphodiesterase inhibitor on atopic dermatitis lesional skin was assessed by double-blind, paired comparisons of active drug and placebo ointments applied to symmetrically involved sites over a 28-d period. Using in vitro, assays, we demonstrated the ability of selective high-potency phosphodiesterase inhibitors to reduce prostaglandin E2, IL-10, and IL-4 production in atopic mononuclear leukocyte cultures. We selected the Type 4 phosphodiesterase inhibitor, CP80,633, based on its inhibitory potency, for clinical testing by topical, bilateral paired comparisons in 20 patients with atopic dermatitis and demonstrated significant reductions of all inflammatory parameters. Phosphodiesterase inhibitors modulate several pathways contributing to the exaggerated immune and inflammatory responses, which characterize atopic dermatitis. This in vivo demonstration of anti-inflammatory efficacy may provide a useful alternative to the over-reliance on corticosteroid therapy in atopic disease.