Tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF alpha), a polypeptide produced by activated macrophages, is a highly pleiotropic cytokine which elicits inflammatory and immunological reactions. The binding of TNF alpha to tumor necrosis factor receptor type I (TNFRI) is considered the initial step responsible for some of the multiple biological functions mediated by TNF alpha. The role of TNF alpha as an inflammatory mediator through human TNFRI makes TNFRI an attractive target for intervention in both acute and chronic inflammatory diseases. In this study, we have identified partial phosphorothioate oligodeoxyribonucleotides (ODNs) containing C-5 propynyl or hexynyl derivatives of 2'-deoxyuridine which specifically inhibited TNFRI and subsequently inhibited the functions of TNF alpha mediated through TNFRI. The most active ODNs were directed against the 3'-poly adenylation signal site on the TNFRI mRNA, and in a cellular assay, gene-specific antisense inhibition occurred in a dose-dependent fashion at submicromolar concentrations, in the presence of Cellfectin. The inhibition of gene expression correlated with the binding affinity of the ODN for the target mRNA. The ODNs lowered TNFRI protein levels and TNF alpha-mediated functions by specifically reducing levels of TNFRI mRNA. These anti-TNFRI ODNs offer a novel approach for controlling biological functions of TNF alpha and may be useful as human therapeutic agents for treating diseases in which TNF alpha has been implicated.