Dendritic cell (DC) development and function is critical in the initiation phase of any antigen-specific immune response against tumours. Impaired function of DC is one explanation as to how tumours escape immunosurveillance. In the presence of various soluble tumour-related factors DC precursors lose their ability to differentiate into mature DC and to activate T cells. Gangliosides are glycosphingolipids shed by tumours of neuroectodermal origin such as melanoma and neuroblastoma. In this investigation we address the question of whether gangliosides suppress the development and function of monocyte-derived DC in vitro. In the presence of gangliosides, the monocytic DC precursors showed increased adherence, cell spreading and a reduced number of dendrites. The expression of MHC class II molecules, co-stimulatory molecules and the GM-CSF receptor (CD116) on the ganglioside-treated DC was significantly reduced. Furthermore, the function of ganglioside-treated DC was impaired as observed in endocytosis, chemotactic and T cell proliferation assays. In contrast to monocytic DC precursors, mature DC were unaffected even when higher doses of gangliosides were added to the culture. With regard to their carbohydrate structure, five different gangliosides (GM2, GM3, GD2, GD3, GT1b), which are typically shed by melanoma and neuroblastoma, were tested for their ability to suppress DC development and function. Suppression was induced by GM2, but not by the other gangliosides. These data suggest that certain gangliosides impair DC precursors, implying a possible mechanism for tumour escape.