The physiological role of the multidrug resistance P-glycoprotein (P- gp), which is expressed by normal human T lymphocytes, is still largely unknown. To investigate whether or not P-gp is involved in the transport of cytokines, peripheral blood lymphocytes were stimulated with phytohemagglutinin (PHA) in the absence or presence of P-gp inhibitors, and concentrations of cytokines (interleukin-2 [IL-2], IL- 4, IL-6, interferon-gamma [IFN-gamma]) in the supernatants of these cultures were quantitated by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. P-gp inhibitors included verapamil (Ver), tamoxifen (Tmx), and the P-gp specific monoclonal antibody UIC2. Release of IL-2 was significantly suppressed by these inhibitors at concentrations that were also effective in blocking efflux of Rhodamine-123 from normal T lymphocytes. IL-2 mRNA expression in lymphocytes was not different between PHA control and the cultures with P-gp inhibitors. Ver and Tmx did not interfere with T-cell activation as determined by CD25 and CD69 expression. In a nonhematological model, the P-gp expressing HCT-8 adenocarcinoma cell line, exogenously added IL-2 was shown to exert an inhibitory effect on P-gp mediated Rhodamine-123 efflux. In addition, transepithelial transport of IL-2 by electrophysiologically tight and polarized HCT-8 monolayers was examined. A time-dependent flux of IL-2 across dense monolayers, which was partially inhibited by Ver, was observed. We also investigated whether or not P-gp inhibitors suppressed release of other cytokines produced by activated T cells (IL- 4, IL-6, IFN-gamma). Release of IL-4 and IFN-gamma was significantly inhibited by Ver, Tmx, and UIC2; however, release of IL-6 remained unaffected. These data show P-gp mediated transmembrane flux of IL-2 in T lymphocytes and HCT-8 cells. We conclude that P-gp participates in the transport of cytokines (IL-2, IL-4, and IFN-gamma) in normal peripheral T lymphocytes.