Procainamide (PA) induces the production of a number of autoantibodies in a high proportion of treated individuals and in some a syndrome closely resembling systemic lupus erythematosus. The mechanism underlying this action of PA is unclear. To examine the possibility that PA might induce autoantibody formation by altering normal immunoregulatory mechanisms, the action of this drug on an in vitro model of antibody formation in man was examined. PA was found to augment the generation of immunoglobulin-secreting cells (ISC) from human peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBM) in response to pokeweed mitogen but had no effect on pokeweed mitogen-induced tritiated thymidine incorporation. When purified populations of B and T cells were used, PA enhanced the generation of ISC in B-cell cultures supported by untreated T cells but not by T cells treated with mitomycin C. These results indicate that PA augmented B-cell responses by inhibiting suppressor T-cell activity and not by augmenting helper T-cell or B-cell function. N-Acetyl-procainamide had no effect on the generation of ISC in this system. The effect of PA on concanavalin A (Con A)-induced suppressor cell activity was also examined to determine whether PA altered the generation or expression of suppressor T-cell function. PBM were cultured with 30 microgram/ml of Con A for 48 h to generate suppressor cells. When these were co-cultured with fresh PBM, the number of ISC generated was decreased by 58.1 +/- 3.4% (mean +/- SEM, n = 6). Cells that had been similarly incubated without Con A were not inhibitory. The addition of PA to the Con A-stimulated cultures inhibited the generation of suppressor cells as indicated by the fact that the response of fresh cells co-cultured with the Con A-stimulated cells was diminished by only 27.2 +/- 4.3%. In this system too, N-acetyl-procaimamide had no effect. By contrast, adding PA only to the co-culture of Con A-stimulated cells with fresh PBM had a less marked effect on suppressor cell function. These results indicate that the major action of PA is to inhibit the generation of suppressor T-cell activity. Such an effect may explain the capacity of this agent to induce autoantibody formation in treated individuals.