Studies on human B-cell development have been hampered by the lack of reproducible culture techniques to induce pre-B cells to differentiate into Ig-secreting plasma cells. Here, we describe that highly purified surface (s) mu-, cytoplasmic (c) mu+, CD10+, CD19+ human pre-B cells derived from fetal bone marrow (BM) differentiate with high frequencies into Ig-secreting plasma cells, when cocultured with activated, cloned CD4+ T cells and with interleukin-4 (IL-4). Production of IgM, total IgG, IgG4, and IgE in pre-B-cell cultures was detected, indicating that the cells also underwent Ig isotype switching. Pre-B-cell differentiation occurred in the absence of BM stromal cells, IL-7, and stem cell factor (SCF). However, IL-7 significantly enhanced the levels of Ig produced, whereas SCF was ineffective. Neutralizing anti-IL-4 monoclonal antibodies (MoAbs) completely inhibited pre-B-cell differentiation showing the specificity of the reaction. Intact CD4+ T- cell clones could be replaced by membrane preparations of these cells, indicating that the costimulatory signals provided by the activated CD4+ T cells are contact-mediated. In contrast, anti-CD40 MoAbs failed to provide the costimulatory signal required for pre-B-cell differentiation, which may be related to the very low expression of CD40 on fetal BM B cells. Activated CD4+ T cells and IL-4 also induced s mu expression and Ig synthesis in cultures initiated with pre-B cells that had been preincubated in medium for 2 days, and from which spontaneously emerging s mu+ B cells were removed by using a fluorescence-activated cell sorter. These results support the notion that the Ig synthesis observed in pre-B-cell cultures was not caused by outgrowth and differentiation of cells that spontaneously matured into s mu+ B cells. In addition, IL-4 and CD4+ T cells strongly enhanced CD40 and HLA-DR expression on the majority of cultured pre-B cells, further indicating that CD4+ T cells and IL-4 activate bona fide pre-B cells. Taken together, these data indicate that activated CD4+ T cells and IL-4 can provide all the necessary signals required for human pre-B cells to differentiate into Ig-secreting plasma cells.