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The results from both clinical studies of women with recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis and a murine model of experimental vaginitis indicate that systemic cell-mediated immunity may not represent a dominant host defense mechanism against vaginal infections by Candida albicans. Recent experimental evidence indicates the presence of local vaginal immune reactivity against C. albicans. The present study was designed to examine T-lymphocyte subpopulations in the vaginal mucosae of naive CBA/J mice. Vaginal lymphocytes (VL) were isolated by collagenase digestion of whole vaginal tissues. Cell populations were identified by flow cytometry, and the results were compared with those for both lymph node cells (LNC) and peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL). The results of flow cytometry showed that 45% +/- 10% of lymphocytes in the vaginal mucosa are CD3+ compared with 75% +/- 5% in LNC and 50% +/- 5% in PBL. The majority (85%) of CD3+ VL are CD4+ and express the alpha/beta T-cell receptor (TCR), similar to the results for LNC and PBL. In contrast to LNC and PBL, VL contain a significantly higher percentage (15 to 20%) of gamma/delta TCR+ cells, 80% or more of which appear to express CD4. In addition, while CD4-CD8 cell ratios in LNC and PBL were 3:1 and 6:1, respectively, only 1% of VL expressed CD8, resulting in a CD4-CD8 cell ratio of > 100:1. Finally, while LNC and PBL recognized two epitope-distinct (GK 1.5 and 2B6) anti-CD4 antibodies, VL recognized only 2B6 anti-CD4 antibodies. Further analysis of VL showed that Thy-1 cells, but not CD4 cells, were reduced after intravaginal injection of complement-fixing anti-Thy-1.2 and GK 1.5 anti-CD4 antibodies, respectively. Taken together, these data suggest that T lymphocytes in the vaginal mucosae of mice are phenotypically distinct from those in the periphery and that CD4+ VL have an uncharacteristic or atypical expression of the CD4 receptor.