An immunosuppressive factor produced by an esophageal squamous carcinoma cell line mediates profound irreversible suppression of in vitro proliferative responses of lymphoid cells. Exposure of activated normal PBL to the immune suppressive factor (ISF) resulted in the induction of an irreversible anergic state with apoptosis evident in 20% of those cells. Flow cytometric cell cycle analysis of mitogenically stimulated normal lymphocytes exposed to the ISF revealed that despite exhibiting full activation status (IL-2 production, IL-2R, and transferrin receptor expression) PBL were arrested at the G1/S interphase of the cell cycle. Transformed lymphoid cell lines, NSO and JURKAT, displayed morphologies characteristic of apoptosis within 24 h of exposure to the ISF. Flow cytometric cell cycle analysis of the JURKAT cells incubated with ISF revealed that > 90% of these cells had undergone apoptosis within 24 h. Agarose gel electrophoresis of DNA extracted from the ISF-treated lymphoid cells resolved a DNA fragmentation pattern characteristic of apoptosis in both the NSO cells and to a lesser extent in the activated PBL exposed to the ISF but not in control cells. In JURKAT cells stimulated with anti-CD3 antibodies, Ca2+ mobilization was markedly enhanced in those cells exposed to ISF. Also, ISF independently induced a calcium flux in JURKAT cells. Induction of programmed cell death by ISF may account for the in vivo immune suppression local to the tumor site in squamous carcinoma of the esophagus.