The mechanisms causing nonresponsiveness to hepatitis B surface Ag (HBsAg) vaccines in humans remain largely unknown. The increased incidence of nonresponsiveness in subjects with HLA-DR3 or -DR7 haplotype suggests that immune response mechanisms governed by genes of the MHC are involved. It is conceivable that APC of nonresponders are defective in the presentation of HBsAg because they are unable to adequately take up, process, or present this Ag. To examine this hypothesis we have used PBMC from nonresponders to present recombinant particles containing S or PreS2-S sequences to HBsAg-specific T cell lines from haplo-identical responder vaccinees. The proliferative response of these lines was used to evaluate the efficacy of Ag presentation. Unfractionated PBMC from five DR2+ and six DR7+ nonresponders did not proliferate to HBsAg in vitro, whereas they vigorously proliferated upon stimulation with tetanus toxoid, thus ruling out the presence of a generalized immunodeficiency. All DR2(15)+ nonresponders were able to present hepatitis B envelope Ag to HBsAg-specific, DR1501-restricted T cells. PBMC from six DR7+ nonresponders were all able to present HBsAg to DR07-restricted T cell lines and PBMC from three DPw4+ nonresponders were able to present HBsAg to DP0402-restricted T cell lines. Additional experiments showed that PBMC from two nonresponders presented HBsAg equally well and sometimes better than PBMC from two partially HLA-matched high responders. We conclude that HLA-DR2+, -DR7+, and -DPw4+ nonresponder vaccinees are able to take up, process and present HBsAg to allogeneic, haplo-identical T cell lines in vitro.