IL-6 is a cytokine synthesized by T cells and macrophages (M phi). It has pleiotropic effects on diverse cell types and is recognized for its "pro-inflammatory" properties. In mice, IL-4, IL-5, IL-6, and IL-10 are produced by Th-2 cells. Because IL-10 suppresses Th-1 clones, and IL-4 broadly deactivates M phi, experiments were carried out to investigate the in vitro effects of recombinant human IL-6 on cytokine activation of human M phi. Pretreatment with IL-6 induced a dose- and time-dependent suppression of IFN-gamma (1000 U/mL) and TNF-alpha (25 ng/mL) activation of M phi for the killing of L. amazonensis. At doses greater than 0.1 to 100 ng/mL, IL-6 inhibited IFN-gamma and TNF-alpha activation by 21 to 93% and 36 to 82%, respectively. IL-6 alone had no effect on M phi viability and intracellular L. amazonensis growth. Blockade of M phi activation was greatest when IL-6 was added 24 or 48 h before infection and treatment with IFN-gamma or TNF-alpha. Furthermore, mAb against IL-6 abrogated the inhibitory activity of IL-6. Similarly IL-6 pretreatment suppressed M phi activation for antileishmanial capacity by IL-3, granulocyte-monocyte-CSF (GM-CSF) and IL-1 beta. Because cytokine induction of antileishmanial activity is associated with enhancement of oxidative capacity, the effect of IL-6 on this mechanism was evaluated. Pretreatment with IL-6 down-modulated TNF-alpha (25 ng/mL) enhancement of M phi oxidative capacity in a dose- and time-dependent manner. A similar depression of oxidative capacity was observed for GM-CSF and IL-3 but not for IFN-gamma. Furthermore, NG-monomethyl-L-arginine (a nitric oxide synthase inhibitor) had no effect on IFN-gamma and TNF-alpha activation of antileishmanial activity and nitrites/nitrates were not reliably assayed from M phi culture supernatants. These findings suggest that IL-6 down-modulates cytokine activation of M phi antileishmanial capacity by inhibiting oxygen-dependent and undefined oxygen-independent mechanisms.