To elucidate the role of cell adhesion molecules in the pathogenesis of insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus and to determine the predominant lymphocytic homing pathway(s) involved in the selective lymphocytic infiltration of pancreatic islets (insulitis), nonobese diabetic mice were treated with monoclonal antibodies specific for the L-selectin and integrin alpha 4 lymphocyte adhesion molecules. Treatment of neonatal mice with either anti-L-selectin or anti-integrin alpha 4 monoclonal antibodies for the first 4 weeks of life led to a significant and long-term protection against spontaneous occurrence of insulitis and diabetes. The same treatment failed to inhibit lymphocytic infiltration of the salivary glands (sialadenitis). This tissue-specific inhibition of inflammation may be attributed to differences between the pancreas and salivary gland in their expression of endothelial ligands for L-selectin (peripheral vascular addressin) and for integrin alpha 4 (mucosal addressin cell adhesion molecule 1 and vascular cell adhesion molecule 1). Mucosal addressin cell adhesion molecule 1 is highly expressed by vessels within the inflamed islets but was not detected in the salivary glands. In contrast, peripheral vascular addressin- and vascular cell adhesion molecule 1-expressing vessels can be found in almost every area of inflammation within the salivary glands but are seen in only 40-50% of inflamed islets. Anti-L-selectin and anti-integrin alpha 4 treatment had no demonstrable effect on anti-beta-cell autoimmunity or on the immune responses to foreign antigens. Therapeutic treatment with anti-L-selectin after the onset of insulitis from 10 to 14 weeks of age delayed the onset but failed to prevent spontaneous insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, whereas anti-integrin alpha 4 treatment resulted in a significant and long-lasting suppression of the disease. These data strongly suggest that integrin alpha 4 plays a prominent role in the spontaneous development of insulitis and diabetes in nonobese diabetic mice.