We have applied limiting dilution methods suitable for the estimation of mitogen-reactive helper (pHTL) and cytotoxic (pCTL) T cell frequencies to the analysis of immune function in patients 1 mo to 6 yr after allogeneic bone marrow transplantation (BMT). Although the majority of these patients have regained normal levels of Leu-3+ (helper) and Leu-2+ (killer/suppressor) cells by 6 to 12 mo after BMT as assessed by cytofluorimetry, the fraction of these cells that can function in limiting dilution cultures is substantially below normal levels in nearly all patients. Although some BMT patients eventually recover normal frequencies of pCTL and pHTL, values typically remain greatly depressed even in patients transplanted as many as 4 to 6 yr previously. In contrast, recovery of precursors able to proliferate (without expressing either helper or cytotoxic function) in response to phytohemagglutinin (PHA) and interleukin 2 occurs in many patients by 1 yr after transplant. In spite of the decreased frequency of functional precursor cells found after BMT, each precursor is capable of giving rise to the same amount of function at limiting dilutions as that produced by cells from normal controls. In many BMT patients, proliferation in conventional PHA-stimulated cultures returns to near-normal levels even though precursor frequencies remain low. The limiting dilution method is sensitive to residual immune dysfunction in BMT recipients not easily quantitated by other, more conventional techniques.

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