Cytomegalovirus (CMV) remains an important cause of morbidity and mortality after allogeneic stem cell transplantation (SCT), but cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) may play a critical role in controlling CMV reactivation. Fluorescent HLA-peptide tetramers containing immunodominant peptides from CMV were used to prospectively monitor the recovery of CMV CTL in recipients of allogeneic transplants from siblings (n = 13) or unrelated donors (n = 11). In patients given allografts from a sibling when both the patient and donor were seropositive for CMV before SCT, recovery of CMV-specific CTL was rapid and reached up to 21% of all CD8(+) T cells. Early reconstitution of CMV-specific immunity was not observed if either the donor or recipient was seronegative for CMV. In recipients of transplants from volunteer unrelated donors, recovery of CMV-specific CTL was delayed in comparison to that in recipients of transplants from siblings and no CTL were observed within the first 100 days after SCT. CTL numbers were increased after episodes of CMV reactivation but were suppressed by prednisolone therapy. Recovery of CMV-specific CTL to levels greater than 10 x 10(6)/L was associated with protection from CMV disease. It was concluded that use of HLA-peptide tetramers to quantify CMV CTL is valuable for studying T-cell responses after allogeneic SCT. It should allow prediction of CMV reactivation in individual patients and assist in the development of adoptive T-cell immunotherapy.