Recombinant interferon-gamma (rIFN-gamma) therapy has become an effective form of prophylaxis for patients with chronic granulomatous disease (CGD). Preliminary studies with CGD suggested that rIFN-gamma treatment enhanced phagocyte oxidase activity and increased superoxide (O2-) production. We evaluated several aspects of neutrophil NADPH oxidase activity in 19 CGD patients (representing all four known types of CGD) receiving prolonged rIFN-gamma therapy (6 to 27 months). In contrast to earlier studies, we failed to detect any improvement in neutrophil NADPH oxidase activity in 18 of the 19 CGD patients as determined by (1) intact cell O2- production (continuous assay), (2) nitroblue tetrazolium (NBT) staining, (3) cytochrome b558 spectroscopy, and (4) activity levels of cytosol and membrane oxidase components using a cell-free activation system. One patient with a variant form of X-linked CGD had a transient increase in neutrophil O2- production following 3 months of rIFN-gamma therapy. However, this was not sustained, and was not associated with any change in cytochrome b levels. In some patients, rIFN-gamma therapy was associated with the appearance of a small subset of circulating monocytes (1% to 20%) that were NBT-positive. Although the functional significance of this monocyte subpopulation needs to be determined, these results suggest that one possible mechanism by which rIFN-gamma may benefit CGD patients is by partially correcting the respiratory burst defect in a subset of monocytes. We conclude that the clinical benefit of prolonged rIFN-gamma therapy in the vast majority of CGD patients is not due to enhanced neutrophil NADPH oxidase activity. The mechanism of action of rIFN-gamma in most CGD patients remains unknown.