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Insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) is an autoimmune disease that results in the destruction of the pancreatic islet beta cells. Glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD) has been recently indicated as a key autoantigen in the induction of IDDM in nonobese diabetic mice. In human diabetes, the mechanism by which the beta cells are destroyed is still unknown. Here we report the first evidence for the presence of GAD-specific cytotoxic T cells in asymptomatic and recent diabetic patients. GAD65 peptides displaying the human histocompatibility leukocyte antigen (HLA)-A*0201 binding motif have been synthesized. One of these peptides, GAD114-123, binds to HLA-A*0201 molecules in an HLA assembly assay. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells from individuals with preclinical IDDM, recent-onset IDDM, and from healthy controls were stimulated in vitro with the selected peptide in the presence of autologous antigen-presenting cells. In three cases (one preclinical IDDM and two recent-onset IDDM), we detected specific killing of autologous antigen-presenting cells when incubated with GAD114-123 peptide or when infected with a recombinant vaccinia virus expressing GAD65. These patients were the only three carrying the HLA-A*0201 allele among the subjects studied. Our finding suggests that GAD- specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes may play a critical role in the initial events of IDDM.