Our goal was to use carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) as a target for immunotherapy in CEA-positive cancer patients who are all immune tolerant to the native antigen. We isolated and characterized an anti-idiotype monoclonal antibody 3H1, which mimics a distinct and specific epitope of the Mr 180,000 CEA and can be used as a surrogate for CEA. In Phase Ib clinical trials in a group of 23 advanced colorectal cancer patients, 3H1 induced both humoral and cellular anti-3H1 responses, as well as anti-CEA immunity. To study the cellular immunity invoked by 3H1 at the molecular level, we have cloned and sequenced the cDNAs encoding the variable heavy and light chains of 3H1 and deduced the amino acid sequences of the encoded proteins. To identify any crossreactive peptides of 3H1 and CEA, we compared the amino acid sequences of 3H1 with those of CEA and found several regions of homology in 3H1 heavy and light chain variable domains, as well as in the framework regions. To search for potential cross-reactive T-cell epitopes, a number of peptides were synthesized based on 3H1/CEA homology and were used as stimulants in cell proliferation assays, using peripheral blood mononuclear cells from a group of 3H1-immunized CEA-positive cancer patients in the adjuvant setting. Two partially homologous peptides, designated LCD-2 (from 3H1) and CEA-B (from CEA), were identified in 10 of 21 adjuvant patients by strong proliferation responses (stimulation index, 3-50-fold), which were extensively studied in five of these individuals over an extended period of time (12-24 months). We saw no correlation with the MHC class I haplotype of the patients. Analysis of the subtype of the responding T cells demonstrated that primarily CD4+ T cells were stimulated by both 3H1 and 3H1-derived peptides. Interleukin 2, interleukin 4, and IFN-γ were assayed in the culture medium of peripheral blood mononuclear cells stimulated with 3H1, CEA, and LCD-2 to determine the T-cell helper subset induced by these stimulants. The in vitro responses were mainly associated with secretion of IFN-γ, which suggested that the induced T cells were most likely CD4+ Th1 type. Future studies will include the design of second-generation LCD-2 and CEA peptides to further enhance antigenicity, to characterize the responding T-cell populations more fully, and to test refined peptides for immunogenicity.