To help elucidate the mechanism responsible for graft failure (GF) following a T-cell depleted bone marrow transplant (BMT) from an unrelated donor, five patients (2 chronic myelogenous leukemia, 1 acute undifferentiated leukemia, 2 myelodysplastic syndrome) who experienced this complication were studied. All patients were HLA class I identical with their donors as determined by serology and one-dimensional isoelectric focusing (IEF); two were serologically matched with their donors for HLA class II antigens, whereas three donor-recipient pairs were serologically mismatched for one HLA-DR antigen. All patients received total body irradiation (fractionated, 1,500 rads), VP-16 (750 mg/m2), and cyclophosphamide (120 mg/kg) pre-BMT and antithymocyte globulin (15 mg/kg every other day) and methylprednisolone (2 mg/kg) post-BMT. Three patients experienced primary nonengraftment and two experienced secondary GF. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells obtained from the patients at the time of GF were studied to examine their functional and phenotypic characteristics. Emerging cells were of host origin and were found to be specifically cytotoxic to donor target cells and suppressive to the in vitro growth of donor BM, especially in the cases of primary nonengraftment. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells from these patients were expanded to form T-cell lines (TcLs). The cytotoxic activities of TcLs were tested in the presence of blocking MoAbs directed against various HLA determinants in an attempt to determine if HLA antigens expressed on donor cells were the target for cytotoxicity. The observed cytotoxic activity was blocked by antibodies to HLA-B, -C (1 patient), HLA-DR (1 patient), and HLA-DQ (1 patient). In two cases, antidonor cytotoxicity could not be blocked by MoAb directed against HLA-A, -B, -C, or -DR. Phenotypic characterization of four successfully maintained TcLs showed 100% CD3+ cells with 100% CD4+ (3 patients) or 50% CD4+/50% CD8+ (1 patient). In two of the three patients with 100% CD4+ cells, antidonor cytotoxicity was blocked by an anti-HLA class II MoAb. In contrast to our previous findings in cases of GF following T-cell-depleted HLA nonidentical family member BMT in which host T cells were CD8+ and cytotoxicity was directed against HLA class I antigens, our present study indicates host T cells emerging at the time of GF following BMT from an HLA class I IEF-identical unrelated donor can be of the CD4+ subset and seem to be capable of recognizing antigenic disparities in the HLA class II region.