The high rate of severe cytomegalovirus (CMV) disease after bone marrow transplantation (BMT) is related to the profound immunodeficiency posttransplant. Because cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) have been implicated in resistance to viral infections, we examined the restoration of the CMV-specific CTL response in 20 patients who received bone marrow from HLA-matched, CMV-seropositive donors. Blood specimens were obtained from patients at 1, 2, and 3 months after BMT and from the donors on a single occasion. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells were cocultured with CMV-infected donor-derived fibroblasts for 2 weeks and then tested for cytotoxicity against CMV-infected and uninfected autologous or HLA-mismatched fibroblasts. Cytolytic activity was detected in all 20 donors, with specificity for autologous CMV- infected targets demonstrable in 17 (median CMV-specific lysis at an effector:target ratio of 15:1 was 32%, range 18% to 83%). Specific lysis was mediated by CD8+, class I-restricted T cells, as shown by inhibition with anti-class I monoclonal antibody and by selective depletion of effector cells. By contrast, CMV-specific CTL were detected in only 10 of 20 patients after BMT (median lysis 29% at 3 months post-BMT). None of these 10 patients developed CMV pneumonia, whereas 6 of the 10 patients with an undetectable CMV-specific CTL response after BMT died with CMV pneumonia. These results demonstrate that restoration of CMV-specific CTL responses may require an extended time period after BMT in some patients, and that such patients are at increased risk of developing severe CMV disease. Approaches to reconstitute CMV immunity in BMT patients by adoptive transfer of CMV- specific CD8+ CTL clones derived from the bone marrow donor are now being pursued.