A protocol for in vitro induction of primary, antigen-specific CTL from human peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) was developed. Antigen presenting cells (APCs) consisted of Staphylococcus aureus Cowan-I (SAC-I) activated PBMCs treated with a citrate-phosphate buffer at pH 3 to release endogenous peptides bound to surface MHC. This treatment resulted in transient expression of empty class I molecules which could be subsequently stabilized with peptide and beta 2-microglobulin (beta 2m). SAC-I activated PBMCs from HLA-A2.1 normal donors loaded with HBV core 18-27 peptide following acid treatment were used to stimulate PBMCs depleted of CD4+ T cells, in the presence of recombinant interleukin-7 (rIL-7). After 12 days, cells were restimulated with autologous, peptide-pulsed, adherent cells and tested for CTL activity 7 days later. In 23 independent experiments from 13 different HLA-A2.1 donors, this protocol resulted in induction of primary CTL more than 90% of the time. As indicated by both the frequency and magnitude of the response against peptide-sensitized target cells, SAC-I activated PBMCs treated with acid were the most efficient stimulator APC. Thirteen per cent of the cultures generated were capable of lysing target cells transfected with the HBV core antigen and, in general, these CTL cultures exhibited high avidity for the HBV core peptide. This protocol is generally applicable to different antigens and class I alleles, and thus, may be utilized to screen large numbers of peptides to identify human CTL epitopes.