We studied the generation of cytotoxic lymphocytes in adults during an outbreak of acute measles virus infection. Nine patients were studied determining in particular whether virus-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes could be directly detected in peripheral blood during this acute infection. The cytotoxicity of PBL was assayed against measles virus-infected and uninfected phytohemagglutinin-induced blast cells of matched and mismatched HLA, A, B, and C types, in a standard 4-h 51Cr release assay. There was greater cytotoxicity against measles virus-infected than uninfected target cells in at least one sample from every patient. In 4 patients this preferential lysis of virus infected cells was greater (a difference of more than 10% virus-specific lysis) against HLA-matched than mismatched targets. This preference for HLA A and B matched infected target cells was also clearly seen when the effector PBL were depleted of FC receptor bearing cells. The other 5 subjects exhibited no evidence of preferential lysis of HLA-matched measles virus-infected cells. All 9 patients limited the spread of measles virus infection and recovered equally from the acute infection. These studies provide some evidence to suggest that MHC-restricted virus-specific CTL are detectable in human peripheral blood during acute measles virus infection, albeit only with low frequency, but are not necessarily associated with recovery from disease.