BACKGROUND: In testing new anti-CD3 agents for transplantation tolerance induction, an anti-CD3 monoclonal antibody was used as a carrier for the cytotoxic drug idarubicin (IDA). METHODS: Anti-CD3 (KT3) was covalently coupled with IDA, producing the IDA-KT3 immunoconjugate, which was tested for specificity by fluorometry and for inhibition of proliferation of CD3+ E3 cells ([3H]thymidine uptake). KT3 and IDA-KT3 were used to treat CBA recipients of BALB/c vascularized cardiac allografts. Mice with hearts surviving >100 days were challenged with donor and third-party (C57BL/6) skin. RESULTS: Conjugation to IDA did not reduce binding of KT3 to E3 cells, although the toxicity of IDA was reduced by conjugation. In BALB/c to CBA cardiac allografts (rejected in 12-17 days), both KT3 and IDA-KT3 (0.25-0.5 mg/20 g mouse i.p. at the time of transplantation) induced tolerance. Hearts survived >100 days and skin graft challenge showed indefinite survival of donor grafts but not third-party grafts. KT3 was less toxic, as measured by tumor necrosis factor-a release and blood glucose levels, than equivalent dosages of 145-2C11. At lower dosages (0.1 mg/20 g mouse), KT3-treated animals rejected BALB/c allografts in 15 to 19 days, but IDA-KT3 induced long survival (>100 days) and donor-specific tolerance in 5 of 6 mice. CONCLUSIONS: Coupling IDA to anti-CD3 reduced the in vivo toxicity of IDA and improved the immunosuppressive performance of KT3, reducing the side effects seen with other anti-CD3 agents. IDA-KT3 is a new, effective, nontoxic tolerogen in this donor-recipient combination.