Pentoxifylline (PTX), a methyl xanthine derivative with phosphodiesterase inhibitory activity, has been shown to have antiinflammatory effects. Previous studies have demonstrated that PTX can suppress TNF alpha production and function, and can inhibit the adhesion of neutrophils and monocytes to endothelial cells. In the present study, we sought to determine whether PTX also interferes with the adhesion of human peripheral blood T lymphocytes to cells of the human dermal endothelial cell line HMEC-1. Using a cell adhesion immunoassay, the effect of different doses of PTX (10(-5)-10(-2) M) on the binding of unactivated or PMA-activated T cells to unstimulated or TNF alpha-stimulated endothelial cells was investigated. In addition, blocking experiments with monoclonal antibodies against pairs of adhesion molecules known to be involved in endothelial cell/T-cell adhesion were performed. Unactivated T cells showed minimal adhesion to unstimulated endothelial cells. PMA-activated T cells showed an eightfold increased binding to TNF alpha-stimulated endothelial cells, which was found to be mediated largely by LFA-1/ICAM-1. PTX inhibited the binding of PMA-activated T cells to TNF alpha-stimulated endothelial cells in a dose-dependent manner. This inhibition was only found when PTX was present during the adhesion assay. A similar inhibition was found when PTX was replaced by isobutylmethylxanthine, another methyl xanthine derivative, or by a combination of two cAMP analogues. The results suggest that interference with T-cell/endothelial cell adhesion, which forms an essential step in the migration of T cells from the peripheral blood into sites of inflammation, may be another explanation for the beneficial effect of PTX in several inflammatory dermatoses.