Cytokine-induced expression of adhesion molecules on leukocytes and endothelial cells (EC) is a crucial point in the process of organ transplant rejection. It has been shown that protein kinase C (PKC) is involved in this activation process. Verapamil and other calcium channel blockers seem to possess immunosuppressive qualities in vivo and in vitro; some authors suggested that this is due to PKC- or calmodulin-antagonism. Thus our objectives were to further investigate the second-messenger systems involved in the stimulation of EC and to analyze whether the beneficial influence of calcium channel blockers on the outcome of transplantation is due to impaired expression of adhesion molecules on EC. Our results, obtained in an in vitro model using human umbilical vein EC, show that IL-1-induced expression of intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1) is in part mediated by PKC and that parallel activation of calmodulin is required. Expression of ICAM-1 was reduced to 38.5% by PKC-inhibitor H7 and to 77.2% by calmodulin-inhibitor W7. In addition, data on the intracellular events in TNF-alpha-induced expression of vascular cell adhesion molecule-1 (VCAM-1) is presented, showing that both PKC and, to a higher extent, calmodulin, are involved in this process. Expression of VCAM-1 was reduced to 63.7% by H7 and to 27.7% by W7. IL-1-induced expression of endothelial leukocyte adhesion molecule-1 (ELAM-1) is PKC-dependent but insensitive to blocking of calmodulin. Though activation of adhesion molecule expression utilizes PKC and/or calmodulin as second-messenger pathways the investigated calcium channel blockers verapamil (R- and S-enantiomers), diltiazem and Ro 40-5967 failed to inhibit adhesion molecule expression. Surprisingly, higher concentrations of verapamil (> 12.5 micrograms/ml) or Ro 40-5967 (5 micrograms/ml) significantly enhanced IL-1-induced expression of ELAM-1. ICAM-1-expression was also enhanced by verapamil, but not by Ro 40-5967 or diltiazem. This enhancement was only seen if verapamil was added maximally one hour after the cytokine stimulus indicating that transcriptional modulation is responsible for the observed effects. Our findings indicate that calcium channel blockers have an immunomodulating effect independent of adhesion molecule expression.