Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) cells express CD23 surface antigen after in vitro treatment with various cytokines, including interleukin- 4 (IL-4) and interferon gamma. Subsequent ligation of CD23 by specific monoclonal antibody (MoAb) induces substantial morphologic and functional modifications in these cells. In the present study, we investigated the role of CD23 in the proliferation and the maturation of leukemic cells from AML patients or the U937 cell line. CD23+ cell treatment with CD23 MoAb inhibited the proliferation of leukemic cells. This correlated with their terminal differentiation after 7 to 9 days incubation because they (1) definitively lost their growth capacity; (2) adhered to culture flasks and became monocyte/macrophage-like; and (3) expressed mature monocyte markers including nonspecific esterases. Intracellular mechanism of this antitumoral effect was then analyzed in U937 cells. Induction of high-density surface CD23 expression by IL-4 or granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor coincided with a transient decrease of U937 cell proliferation. CD23 ligation during this low-proliferative phase induced a rapid activation of L-arginine- dependent pathway and the intracellular accumulation of cyclic guanosine monophosphate and cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP). Induction of these early messengers was followed by the activation of nuclear factor-kB transcription factor and the modulation of proto- oncogene expression by U937 cells. Whereas U937 cell treatment with IL- 4 decreased c-fos/c-jun expression, CD23 MoAb reinduced c-fos/c-jun and promoted the expression of cell maturation-associated proto-oncogenes junB and c-fms, during the first 24 hours. Both IL-4 and CD23 MoAb downregulated the expression of c-myb. CD23 ligation also induced the production of TNF alpha by U937 cells. Inhibitors of cAMP and nitric oxide reversed CD23-mediated modification in U937 cells. These data evidence the ability of CD23 surface antigen to mediate terminal differentiation of early leukemic myelomonocytic cells.