Adenosine, an important neuromodulatory compound in the brain and retina, is a potent vasodilator in most vascular beds throughout the body. Its actions are potentiated by inhibitors of nucleoside transport into cells. Knowledge of the existence of specific adenosine uptake systems in mammalian retina and the inhibition of the uptake by nitrobenzylthioinosine (NBMPR), a potent inhibitor of nucleoside transport, raises the possibility that the associated nucleoside transport system may be of pharmacological importance in retinal function. We have characterized the binding of the nucleoside transporter probe, [3H]NBMPR, to a cultured human retinal cell line established by transfection of SV-40 T antigen plasmid-DNA. The binding was specific, saturable and reversible. Scatchard analysis of the saturation data revealed that NBMPR binds to a homogeneous population of high affinity binding sites (KD = 0.65 +/- 0.22 nM; Bmax = 466 +/- 157 fmol/mg protein) characteristically similar to the binding sites in human retinal tissue (KD = 0.32 +/- 0.01 nM; Bmax = 292 +/- 41 fmol/mg protein). Selected compounds inhibited the binding in the cell line and retinal tissue with the same rank order of potency, suggesting that the transporters in the cell line and retinal tissue are similar. The data showed that the cell line is a useful model for the study of nucleoside transporter function in human retina.