Desferrithiocin is a new, potent, orally available iron chelator. To determine whether this drug might be useful not only for iron-overload but also for immunosuppression, we studied the in vitro effects of desferrithiocin on T-lymphocyte function. Like deferoxamine, desferrithiocin inhibited, in a dose-dependent fashion, mitogen- and lectin-induced proliferation of both human and murine T cells. It was active at a concentration of 10 micrograms/mL. The inhibition of proliferation was reversed by ferrous chloride, but not by other metal salts, recombinant IL-2, or conditioned medium. Desferrithiocin also inhibited proliferation of constitutively dividing, and factor- independent EBV-transformed B cell and leukemic T-cell lines. Although desferrithiocin inhibited the induction of cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) activity, it did not inhibit CTL- or natural killer-induced cytotoxicity. The agent did not inhibit the expression of activation antigens such as the IL-2 receptor on T cells, nor early measures of T- cell activation such as the influx of intracellular calcium. Thus, desferrithiocin, like deferoxamine, is a potent and reversible inhibitor of T-cell proliferation. This anti-proliferative effect inhibits T-cell function. Bioavailability after oral administration is a unique property of desferrithiocin, and would make it an attractive alternative to deferoxamine. Its immunomodulating properties may therefore be exploited in vivo to inhibit graft rejection or autoreactive T cells.