Protein kinase B (PKB/Akt) plays a critical role in cell survival but the investigation of its involvement has been limited by the lack of specific pharmacological agents. In this study, using novel PKB inhibitors (VIII and XI), we investigated the role of PKB in cardioprotection of the rat and human myocardium, the location of PKB in relation to mitoK(ATP) channels and p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (p38 MAPK), and whether the manipulation of PKB can overcome the unresponsiveness to protection of the diabetic myocardium. Myocardial slices from rat left ventricle and from the right atrial appendage of patients undergoing elective cardiac surgery were subjected to 90 min ischaemia/120 min reoxygenation at 37 degrees C. Tissue injury was assessed by creatine kinase (CK) released and determination of cell necrosis and apoptosis. The results showed that blockade of PKB activity caused significant reduction of CK release and cell death, a benefit that was as potent as ischaemic preconditioning and could be reproduced by blockade of phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI-3K) with wortmannin and LY 294002. The protection was time dependent with maximal benefit seen when PKB and PI-3K were inhibited before ischaemia or during both ischaemia and reoxygenation. In addition, it was revealed that PKB is located downstream of mitoK(ATP) channels but upstream of p38 MAPK. PKB inhibition induced a similar degree of protection in the human and rat myocardium and, importantly, it reversed the unresponsiveness to protection of the diabetic myocardium. In conclusion, inhibition of PKB plays a critical role in protection of the mammalian myocardium and may represent a clinical target for the reduction of ischaemic injury.