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Black soybean [Glycine max (L.) Merr.] has been used as a health food and herb in China for hundreds of years. In the present study, we purified a unique polysaccharide component from black soybean (PSBS) and found that it indirectly inhibits proliferation and induces differentiation of human leukemic U937 cells via activation of mononuclear cells (MNCs). We prepared conditioned media (MNC-CM) by incubating MNCs from human peripheral blood with or without PSBS (PSBS-MNC-CM and normal MNC-CM, respectively). Treatment of human leukemic U937 cells with PSBS-MNC-CM significantly inhibited proliferation of U937 cells, reducing their growth by 98.5%. Furthermore, PSBS-MNC-CM induced U937 cells to differentiate into mature monocytes/macrophages (83% by morphological examination and 90% by the nitroblue tetrazolium test). Neither PSBS alone nor normal MNC-CM had such effects. The molecular weight of PSBS was about 480 000 by gel filtration. Structural analysis of PSBS revealed that (1,6)-α-D-glucan might be its major active component. Our results suggest that the PSBS may inhibit proliferation and induce differentiation in human leukemic U937 cells by activating the immune response of MNCs.