Neutrophils display three major functions: (i) oxidative burst, (ii) phagokinetic activity, and (iii) trans-endothelial migration. Sphingosine (SPN) is known to inhibit oxidative burst in human neutrophils via inhibition of protein kinase C (PKC). SPN is metabolically converted into N,N-dimethylsphingosine (DMS) in some tissues and cell lines. In previous studies, we have demonstrated that the PKC-inhibitory effect of DMS is stronger than that of SPN, and that of the synthetic analogue N,N,N-trimethylsphingosine (TMS) is even stronger. Therefore, in the present study, we compared the effects of SPN, DMS, and TMS on the neutrophil functions mentioned above. These three compounds, at 10-20 microM, showed equal inhibition of phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA)-dependent superoxide (O2-) production and O2 consumption. They and other known PKC inhibitors (H-7, staurosporine, calphostin C), at 1-5 microM, showed equal inhibition of the phagokinetic activity of neutrophils. On the other hand, trans-endothelial migration of neutrophils was suppressed by SPN, DMS, and TMS at 5-10 microM, but was relatively unaffected by the other PKC inhibitors. All of these compounds inhibited PMA-induced phosphorylation of major neutrophil proteins with a M(r) of 60 and 47 kDa; this effect is ascribable to inhibition of PKC. Despite the similar effects of SPN, DMS, and TMS on neutrophil function, TMS was considerably less cytotoxic to neutrophils under the same experimental conditions. Furthermore, SPN and DMS at 10-20 microM caused obvious morphological changes of the endothelial cells, but TMS did not. SPN undergoes rapid metabolic conversion to various sphingolipid compounds, but TMS is stable. In view of all these findings, TMS appears to be a superior pharmacological agent, compared to SPN derivatives or other PKC inhibitors, for suppression of neutrophil overfunction associated with inflammatory processes and tissue injury.