The aim of this study was to develop an in vitro test system for pyrogenic substances. Three clones derived from human monocytoid cell lines, which were selected by their high sensitivity to lipopolysaccharide (LPS), were assessed for tumor necrosis factor (TNF) production. Their response to pyrogen-containing samples was compared with that in a Limulus amoebocyte lysate assay and the rabbit pyrogen test. We show here that the induction of TNF in these clones is a valid in vitro alternative to determine endotoxin in commercial preparations requiring pyrogenicity testing. Cell clones derived from Mono Mac 6 (MM6 2H8 and MM6 4B5) responded to sub-ng/ml concentrations of complete rough-strain and smooth-strain LPS, to ng/ml concentrations of diphosphoryl-lipid A, and to microgram/ml concentrations of monophosphoryl-lipid A and to detoxified LPS. Cells reacted to > or = 1 microgram/ml lipoteichoic acid by TNF production, and were relatively insensitive to toxic shock syndrome toxin-1 (TSST-1) and to muramyl dipeptide adjuvant peptide. The reaction pattern of a clone derived from THP-1 (THP-1 1G3) was in general, similar to that of the MM6 clones, except that THP-1 1G3 failed to react to diphosphoryl-lipid A. When tested on commercial samples destined for parenteral use, there was a close correlation between a sensitive Limulus amoebocyte lysate (LAL) test and the cell culture test on the one hand, and between the pyrogen test and the cell culture test on the other hand. The data suggest that this cell-based test is able to recognize pyrogens derived from gram-negative organisms in test samples with appropriate sensitivity and specificity. This test appears to be able to eliminate some of the false-positive data obtained in the LAL test.