A flow cytometric assay that measures binding of human T-lymphotropic virus type 1 (HTLV-1) virions to target cells was used to investigate the binding process and to screen for compounds affecting viral binding. Results showed that adenosine receptor type 2 antagonists effectively inhibit viral binding at concentrations below 10 microM; no inhibition was seen when antagonist was used to pretreat cells or was added post binding, suggesting direct interference with virus attachment. Efficient HTLV-1 binding required divalent calcium ions and temperatures greater than 20 degrees C. Disruption of lipid rafts by cholesterol depletion compromised viral binding but cleavage of glycosyl-phosphatidylinositol linkages had no effect. A monoclonal antibody (mAb) that recognizes HTLV-1 envelope positions 190-209 impaired binding of virus while other anti-envelope antibodies had no effect. These findings place major constraints on the nature of the HTLV-1 cell binding process and identify a class of inhibitors that may have potential for treatment of infection.