The urine of some febrile patients has been shown to contain a tumor necrosis factor-alpha-inhibiting activity (TNF-alpha INH) when tested in a cytotoxicity assay using the TNF-susceptible cell line L-929. The inhibitor was purified to homogeneity using a simple three-step procedure which included a TNF-alpha affinity column, cation exchange and reverse-phase chromatography. The NH2-terminal amino acid sequence of the inhibitor showed no sequence similarity with proteins in the data bases used. Using gel filtration, it was shown that TNF-alpha and the inhibitor form a stable complex which eluted with a molecular weight of about 75,000. This value corresponds to the sum of the inhibitor (~30,000) and TNF-alpha (~45,000-50,000) molecular weight. The TNF-alpha INH blocked prostaglandin E2 production by dermal fibroblasts in a dose-dependent manner, providing evidence for antiinflammatory activity. TNF-alpha INH also blocked class I antigen expression in a dose-dependent manner as measured using the human Colo 205 tumor cell line. Furthermore, TNF-alpha INH affected TNF-alpha synergism with IFN-gamma-induced HLA-DR antigen expression but had no effect on IFN-gamma activity. The data presented demonstrate that TNF-alpha bioactivity can be regulated at the protein level.