In the present study, we investigated the ability of the tetrapeptide NAc-Ser-Asp-Lys-Pro-OH (AcSDKP), a reported inhibitor of primitive hematopoietic cells, to influence the proliferative behavior of primitive normal and chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) progenitor cells in the adherent layer of long-term cultures (LTCs). Addition of > or = 50 ng/mL of AcSDKP to LTCs of normal cells at the time of the regular weekly half-medium change selectively and reversibly decreased the proportion of high proliferative potential erythroid and granulopoietic progenitors in the adherent layer that were in S-phase without changing their numbers, but had no effect on either the cycling activity or number of analogous (neoplastic) cells in the adherent layer of CML LTCs. Specificity of the effect of AcSDKP on primitive normal progenitors was demonstrated by the finding that a similar addition of either the control peptide, AcSDKE, or 100 ng/mL of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha, which contains the SDKP sequence), or SDKP itself (at 300 ng/mL) did not inhibit the proliferation of primitive normal progenitors in LTC adherent layers. Incorporation of > or = 30 ng/mL of AcSDKP (but not the related control peptide, AcSDKE) directly into methylcellulose cultures of normal marrow cells resulted in a dose- dependent suppression of colony formation, which was not seen in similar studies with CML marrow or after removal of adherent cells from normal marrow. Additional experiments showed that the inhibitory effect of AcSDKP on primitive normal progenitor cycling in the LTC system could be overcome by the simultaneous addition of macrophage inflammatory protein-1 beta (MIP-1 beta); an antagonist of MIP-1 alpha. The apparent differential effect of AcSDKP on primitive normal and CML progenitors may thus be a secondary consequence of the differential responsiveness of these cells to MIP-1 alpha for another molecule antagonized by MIP-1 beta), whose production or release by adherent marrow cells is inducible by AcSDKP. Such a mechanism may offer a method for obtaining localized increases in vivo of cytokines like MIP- 1 alpha, suggesting novel and perhaps less toxic strategies for protecting primitive normal progenitors during repeated treatments with cycle-active chemotherapeutic agents where escalating the dose of drug given would be desirable.