Methylxanthines, including the bronchodilators theophylline and aminophylline, in high concentrations (greater than 10(-4) M) inhibit cyclic nucleotide phosphodiesterase activity and in low, clinically relevant concentrations (10(-5) to 10(-4) M) are antagonists of extracellular adenosine receptors. The effect of therapeutic concentrations of methylxanthines on human neutrophil functions stimulated by N-formyl-methionyl-leucyl-phenylalanine (FMLP) was examined. Preincubation of cytochalasin B-treated neutrophils with 10(-5) M to 3 X 10(-3) M methylxanthine resulted in a biphasic, concentration-dependent effect on neutrophil aggregation, lysosomal enzyme release, and superoxide anion formation. At 10(-5) to 10(-4) M, theophylline and aminophylline potentiated neutrophil aggregation, lysosomal enzyme release (30 to 50%, p less than 0.005), and superoxide anion formation (30 to 60%, p less than 0.005). 1-Methyl-3-isobutylxanthine at these same concentrations potentiated only neutrophil aggregation and lysosomal enzyme release (30 to 40%, p less than 0.005). The three methylxanthines inhibited each response up to 90% at concentrations greater than 10(-4) M. 8-Phenyltheophylline, which does not inhibit phosphodiesterase activity, produced only potentiation. Preincubation of neutrophils with adenosine deaminase mimicked the methylxanthine potentiation, whereas addition of adenosine (3 X 10(-8) to 3 X 10(-7) M) reversed the methylxanthine-induced potentiation in a concentration-dependent manner. These results indicate that therapeutic concentrations of methylxanthines may potentiate neutrophil activation in vivo by competing with circulating adenosine for neutrophil adenosine receptors.

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