OBJECTIVE The novel, proinflammatory cytokine endothelial-monocyte-activating-polypeptide-II (EMAP-II) was first found in tumour cell supernatants and is closely related or identical to the p43 component of the mammalian multisynthetase complex. In its secreted form, EMAP-II has multiple cytokine-like activities in vitro, including chemotactic, procoagulant and antiangiogenic properties. We recently showed that neoplastic but not normal hepatocytes expresses the 34-kDa molecule on the cell surface in vitro and the cell-surface expression is upregulated by treatment with tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha/interferon (IFN)-gamma and/or hypoxia. We hypothesized an immune-regulatory role of EMAP-II within neoplastic tissues and investigated its effects on lymphocytes. METHODS To study the role of EMAP-II in tumour cell-induced lymphocyte killing, Jurkat T-cells were co-cultured with a range of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) cell monolayers (HuH-7, HepG2 and Alexander cells), which were either untreated or treated with TNF-alpha/IFN-gamma under normoxic and hypoxic conditions over a period of 16-24 hours. Flow cytometric analysis of apoptosis in Jurkat cells was performed using the annexin-V-FITC/propidium iodide technique. RESULTS rEMAP-II caused a dose-dependent apoptosis in Jurkat T-cells. Co-culture of Jurkat cells with HCC cell monolayers induced significant apoptosis of the Jurkat cells. In general, under normoxic conditions, cytokine-treated HCC cell monolayer caused more apoptosis than untreated cells. This effect was enhanced by hypoxia. Critically, native EMAP-II expressed on the surface of the HCC cells also induced activation of caspase-8 and apoptosis in Jurkat cells, which was partially but significantly blocked by addition of polyclonal antibodies against EMAP-II to the incubation mixture. CONCLUSION Our data suggest that membrane-bound EMAP-II is cytotoxic to lymphocytes and, therefore, might constitute a component of a novel, immunosuppressive pathway by which HCC cells may eliminate attacking T-cells and evade the immune system. The mechanism by which it does so is currently under investigation.