T cells of patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) do not control the rate of B lymphoblast transformation induced by Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) as efficiently as T cells from healthy individuals; thus, lymphoblast cell lines are established more readily in RA lymphocytes in vitro after EBV infection. In the present experiments, we have asked whether this T cell regulation can be reproduced by lymphocytes. We found that normal T cells, activated in allogeneic or autologous mixed leukocyte reactions (MLR), produce lymphokines that inhibit in vitro EBV-induced B cell proliferation. Allogeneic MLR supernatants inhibited EBV-induced DNA synthesis 62 +/- 4% (mean +/- SE) at 10 d post-infection, whereas autologous MLR supernatants suppressed it 50 +/- 3%. RA T cell supernatants produced in an allogeneic MLR suppressed as well as normal T cell supernatants (64 +/- 5% inhibition). In contrast, supernatants from RA autologous MLR had little inhibitory activity. EBV-induced DNA synthesis at 10 d was reduced only 8 +/- 3%, compared with the 50 +/- 3% suppressive activity of normal autologous MLR supernatants. The magnitude of the proliferative responses in the autologous MLR regenerating the lymphokines was similar in the normal and RA populations. After depletion of adherent cells from the RA auto-MLR stimulators, supernatant inhibitory activities increased to normal levels (from 11 +/- 6 [SE] to 52 +/- 6% [SE]). The inhibitory factor involved in the regulation of in vitro EBV infection is a protein with a molecular weight of approximately 50,000. Its activity is eliminated by hearing at 56 degrees C and by exposure to acid at pH 2. The inhibitory activity is blocked by mixing the MLR supernatants with a polyvalent antisera or monoclonal antibodies specific for human gamma interferon. Gamma interferon produced by activating T cells in allo- or auto-MLR can reproduce T cell-mediated regulation of EBV-induced B cell proliferation, and the failure of RA auto-MLR to generate that lymphokine parallels the defective T cell regulation of EBV-induced B cell proliferation characteristic of RA lymphoid cells.