Gangliosides expressed in malignant melanoma are potential targets for immunotherapy. Immunization of melanoma patients with vaccines containing purified GM2 ganglioside has resulted in induction of GM2 antibodies, and high titers of GM2 antibodies have correlated with increased survival. Melanoma ganglioside 9-O-acetyl GD3 is another candidate for ganglioside vaccine construction because of its limited expression in normal human tissues. As purification of 9-O-acetyl GD3 from human melanoma (9-O-acetylated on the terminal sialic acid) is not practical for broad application, we investigated the antibody response of melanoma patients to O-acetyl GD3 from several additional sources: hamster melanoma (7-O-acetyl GO3), bovine buttermilk (mixture of 7-O-acetyl GD3, 9-O-acetyl GD3 and 7,9-di-O-acetyl GD3) and chemically modified GD3 from bovine brain (9-O-acetylated on the subterminal sialic acid). Only immunization with the buttermilk-derived O-acetyl GD3 preparation resulted in consistent production of IgM antibodies. However, the induced antibodies reacted with the immunogen and with 7-O-acetyl GO3 derived from hamster melanoma but not with 9-O-acetyl GD3 or human melanoma cells expressing 9-O-acetyl GD3 on their cell surface. In contrast, all O-acetyl GD3 derivatives used for immunization were recognized by murine MAbs that reacted with 9-O-acetyl GD3, and immunization of mice with buttermilk-derived O-acetyl GD3 resulted in the production of antibodies that reacted with human melanoma cells expressing 9-O-acetyl GD3. Apparently, the human and murine immune systems preferentially recognize different epitopes on these molecules. © 1995 Wiley-Liss, Inc.