Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) from 17 patients receiving HLA-identical sibling bone marrow grafts were stimulated with host pretransplant PBMC. Cytotoxic T-cell lines (TCL) with specificity for host pretransplant PBMC were obtained from 9 of these patients, all presenting with severe graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), but from none of the remaining cases lacking evidence of disease. Cytotoxic TCL were specific for host targets and failed to lyse donor cells. Monoclonal antibodies (MoAbs) blocking experiments and donor population screening analyses demonstrated that minor histocompatibility antigen (MiHA)- specific lysis of host targets was restricted by class I major histocompatibility complex (MHC) determinants. Whereas hematopoietic cells such as phytohemagglutinin (PHA) blasts or lymphoblastoid cell lines were susceptible to lysis by MiHA-specific TCL, keratinocytes (K) representing the natural targets of GVHD were quite resistant. Quantitative radioimmunometric measurements indicated very low constitutive expression of class I MHC antigens on K targets, which was readily increased by treatment with interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma). IFN- gamma treatment at the same time rendered these cells susceptible to lysis by MiHA-specific TCL. Host leukemic cells of 3 patients were recognized by MiHA-specific TCL in a chromium release assay and in one experiment host leukemic cells were effectively killed and their growth specifically inhibited in a leukemia colony assay by a clone. These data demonstrate that (1) host-specific cytotoxic TCL are detected exclusively in the PB of patients with acute GVHD grades II through IV after allogeneic matched bone marrow transplantation, and (2) their target antigens are simultaneously expressed on several host cell lines, including lymphoblastoid cell lines, PHA blasts, leukemic cells, and K. We also extend previous findings by showing that, besides the expression of the nominal MiHA, the density of the restricting class I MHC elements also crucially determines the extent of TCL lysis. Because of its capacity to enhance class I MHC antigen expression, IFN-gamma represents a key cytokine for determining the susceptibility of MiHA targets for lysis by TCL and clones, and in one patient an MiHA- specific clone recognized host leukemic cells and also inhibited host leukemic cell growth in a colony inhibition assay.