The pharmacokinetics of chondroitin sulfate (CS, Condrosulf, IBSA, Lugano, Switzerland) were investigated in rats and in healthy volunteers using CS tritiated at the reducing end and CS labeled with 131I or 99mTc respectively. A rapid absorption of orally administered CS is observed in rats and in humans when the drug is dissolved in water. Lower and delayed absorption is observed when CS is administered in gastroresistant capsules. The absolute bio-availability is 15 and 12% for rats and humans respectively. The CS shows a tropism for cartilagineous tissues in rats and for knee tissues in humans as demonstrated by scintigraphic analysis with 99mTc-CS. Monomers, oligo and polysaccharides produced by enzymatic hydrolysis of CS appear in the blood and tissues together with native CS. The effects of partially depolymerized (m.m. 3 to 15 kD) and desulfated fractions on human leukocytes were investigated. CS and its fractions inhibit the directional chemotaxis induced by zymosan-activated serum, are able to decrease the phagocytosis and the release of lysozyme induced by zymosan and to protect the plasma membrane from oxygen reactive species. In rats the oral administration of CS significantly decreases granuloma formation due to sponge implants and cell migration and lysosomal enzyme release in carrageenan pleurisy. Compared with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (indomethacin, ibuprofen), CS appears to be more effective on cellular events of inflammation than on edema formation. It is noteworthy that CS is devoid of dangerous effects on the stomach, platelets and kidneys. In synovial fluid of patients requiring joint aspiration, treated orally for 10 days with CS (800 mg/day) the hyaluronate concentration and the intrinsic viscosity significantly increased, while collagenolytic activity, phospholipase A2 and N-acetylglucosaminidase (NAG) decreased. These results give an insight into the mechanism of the anti-inflammatory and chondroprotective actions demonstrated by this drug in a number of clinical trials in patients with osteoarthritis.