Insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) is thought to be an immunologically mediated disease resulting in the complete destruction of the insulin-producing islets of Langerhans. It has become increasingly clear that autoreactive T cells play a major role in the development and progression of this disease. In this study, we examined the role of the CD28/B7 costimulation pathway in the development and progression of autoimmune diabetes in the nonobese diabetic (NOD) mouse model. Female NOD mice treated at the onset of insulitis (2-4 wk of age) with CTLA4Ig immunoglobulin (Ig) (a soluble CD28 antagonist) or a monoclonal antibody (mAb) specific for B7-2 (a CD28 ligand) did not develop diabetes. However, neither of these treatments altered the disease process when administered late, at > 10 wk of age. Histological examination of islets from the various treatment groups showed that while CTLA4Ig and anti-B7-2 mAb treatment blocked the development of diabetes, these reagents had little effect on the development or severity of insulitis. Together these results suggest that blockade of costimulatory signals by CTLA4Ig or anti-B7-2 acts early in disease development, after insulitis but before the onset of frank diabetes. NOD mice were also treated with mAbs to another CD28 ligand, B7-1. In contrast to the previous results, the anti-B7-1 treatment significantly accelerated the development of disease in female mice and, most interestingly, induced diabetes in normally resistant male mice. A combination of anti-B7-1 and anti-B7-2 mAbs also resulted in an accelerated onset of diabetes, similar to that observed with anti-B7-1 mAb treatment alone, suggesting that anti-B7-1 mAb's effect was dominant. Furthermore, treatment with anti-B7-1 mAbs resulted in a more rapid and severe infiltrate. Finally, T cells isolated from the pancreas of these anti-B7-1-treated animals exhibited a more activated phenotype than T cells isolated from any of the other treatment groups. These studies demonstrate that costimulatory signals play an important role in the autoimmune process, and that different members of the B7 family have distinct regulatory functions during the development of autoimmune diabetes.