Adenosine is an endogenous nucleoside that can modulate the function of cells involved in the inflammatory response, such as polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMN) and monocytes. Production and release of cytokines by activated mononuclear phagocytes is an important event in the pathogenesis of ischemia-reperfusion injury, a pathologic phenomenon that is associated with excessive ATP catabolism and subsequent local release of adenosine. The "retaliatory" metabolite adenosine has been shown to interfere with PMN function, thereby attenuating the deleterious consequences of ischemia and reperfusion. In this study, we demonstrate that adenosine inhibits the production of TNF-alpha, IL-6, and IL-8 by LPS-activated human monocytes with a differential potency. The A2 receptor-specific adenosine analogues 2-chloroadenosine and 5'-N-ethylcarboxamidoadenosine (NECA) were most effective in attenuating LPS-induced cytokine production, whereas the A1-selective adenosine analogue N6-cyclopentyladenosine (CPA) was less effective, indicating that inhibition of cytokine production by adenosine is primarily an A2 receptor-mediated event. The observed inhibitory effects were not restricted to endotoxin-induced cytokine production, because adenosine also inhibited TNF-alpha production by monocytes stimulated with the proinflammatory cytokine IL-1 beta. Again, 2-chloroadenosine and NECA reduced IL-beta-induced TNF-alpha production more potently than CPA. In contrast, adenosine enhanced production of IL-6 and IL-8 by monocytes stimulated with IL-1 beta. Furthermore, only 2-chloroadenosine, but not NECA, strongly inhibited cytokine-induced IL-6 and IL-8 production. These results suggest an additional A2 receptor-mediated mechanism of retaliatory action of adenosine under pathologic conditions where cytokine production by activated mononuclear phagocytes is involved, such as ischemia-reperfusion injury and septic shock.