Adjuvant-induced arthritis (AA) in rats is associated with a number of immunologic abnormalities which include a marked decrease in spleen cell mitogenic responses. In this study we investigated the altered production of interleukins in arthritic rats and evaluated the effects of auranofin treatment on disease progression and aberrant interleukin production. The capacity of the AA rat spleen cells to produce interleukin (IL) 2 and IL-3 was found to decrease during the development of the arthritic lesion, with maximum suppression occurring 16 to 17 days after adjuvant injection. In contrast, the production of IL-1 by splenic adherent cells from arthritic rats was markedly increased. Prophylactic treatment of AA rats with auranofin resulted in a slight reduction in paw edema, a complete normalization of the depressed IL-2 production, and a reduction of the elevated IL-1 production, but had no effect on the depressed IL-3 production. In contrast, auranofin administered to normal rats, in the same dosing regimen, did not affect interleukin production. Therapeutic administration of auranofin to AA rats with established disease resulted in normalization of IL-1 production without affecting the suppressed IL-2 and IL-3 levels. In contrast, while indomethacin treatment effectively decreased paw edema, it did not appreciably affect the systemic aberrant interleukin production. Taken together, these results suggest that disease-associated abnormalities in interleukin production may be mediated by different mechanisms with differential sensitivity to the effects of the disease-modifying drug auranofin. Furthermore, defining the relationship between drug-mediated normalization of aberrant immune parameters and clinical improvement will provide a basis for the elucidation of the mechanism of action of disease-modifying antiarthritic drugs as well as for assessment of clinical efficacy of drug treatment.