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A skin-associated population of memory T lymphocytes, defined by expression of the cutaneous lymphocyte antigen (CLA), binds selectively and avidly to the vascular lectin endothelial cell-leukocyte adhesion molecule 1 (ELAM-1), an interaction that may be involved in targeting of CLA+ T cells to cutaneous sites of chronic inflammation. Here we present evidence that CLA itself is the (or a) lymphocyte homing receptor for ELAM-1. Antigen isolated with anti-CLA monoclonal antibody HECA-452 from human tonsillar lysates avidly binds ELAM-1 transfected mouse cells. Anti-CLA antibody blocks T lymphocyte binding to ELAM-1 transfectants. HECA-452 and ELAM-1 binding to lymphocytes or to isolated tonsillar HECA-452 antigen is abrogated by neuraminidase treatment implying a prominent role for sialic acid in CLA structure and function. The dominant form of CLA on T cells is immunologically distinct from the major neutrophil ELAM-1 ligand, the sialyl Lewis x (sLex) antigen (NeuAc alpha 2-3Gal beta 1-4[Fuc alpha 1-3]GlcNAc), which is absent, weakly expressed, or masked on T cells. However, neuraminidase treatment of CLA+ T cells, but not of CLA- T cells, reveals Lewis x (CD15) structures. In combination with the known requirement for terminal NeuAc alpha 2-3Gal and fucose residues attached to N-acetylglucosamine for ELAM-1 and HECA-452 binding, this finding suggests that CLA may comprise an additionally sialylated or otherwise modified form of sLex. The identification of a lymphocyte homing receptor for skin may permit novel approaches to the diagnosis and therapy of cutaneous and inflammatory disorders.