Experimental vaccines targeting human T cell leukemia virus type-I (HTLV-I) Tax have been demonstrated in a rat model of HTLV-I-induced lymphomas. However, the scarcity of HTLV-I-expression and the presence of defective HTLV-I-proviruses in adult T cell leukemia (ATL) cells have raised controversy about the therapeutic potential of HTLV-I-targeted immunotherapy in humans. We investigated the expression of HTLV-I antigens in fresh ATL cells by using both in vitro and in vivo assays. In flow cytometric analysis, we found that 3 of 5 acute-type and six of fifteen chronic-type ATL patients tested showed significant induction of HTLV-I Tax and Gag in their ATL cells in a 1-day culture. Concomitantly with HTLV-I-expression, these ATL cells expressed co-stimulatory molecules such as CD80, CD86 and OX40, and showed elevated levels of antigenicity against allogeneic T cells and HTLV-I Tax-specific cytotoxic T-lymphocytes (CTL). Representative CTL epitopes restricted by HLA-A2 or A24 were conserved in 4 of 5 acute-type ATL patients tested. Furthermore, spleen T cells from rats, which had been subcutaneously inoculated with formalin-fixed uncultured ATL cells, exhibited a strong interferon gamma-producing helper T cell responses specific for HTLV-I Tax-expressing cells. Our study indicated that ATL cells from about half the patients tested readily express HTLV-I antigens including Tax in vitro, and that ATL cells express sufficient amounts of Tax or Tax-induced antigens to evoke specific T cell responses in vivo. © 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.