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BACKGROUND: The pathogenesis of asthma is believed to reflect antigen-induced airway inflammation leading to the recruitment of eosinophils and activation of mast cells through cell-associated IgE. Controversies persist however, regarding the relative importance of different pathogenic cells and effector molecules. MATERIALS AND METHODS: A variety of gene-targeted mice were examined for the induction of cholinergic airway hyperresponsiveness (AH), allergic airway inflammation, mucus production, and serum IgE reactivity following intratracheal challenge with a potent allergen. AH was determined using whole-body plethysmography following acetylcholine challenge. Where possible, results were confirmed using neutralizing antibodies and cell-specific reconstitution of immune deficient mice. RESULTS: T and B cell-deficient, recombinase-activating-gene-deficient mice (RAG -/-) failed to develop significant allergic inflammation and AH following allergen challenge. Reconstitution of RAG -/- mice with CD4+ T cells alone was sufficient to restore allergen-induced AH, allergic inflammation, and goblet cell hyperplasia, but not IgE reactivity. Sensitized B cell-deficient mice also developed airway hyperreactivity and lung inflammation comparable to that of wild-type animals, confirming that antibodies were dispensable. Treatment with neutralizing anti-IL-4 antibody or sensitization of IL-4-deficient mice resulted in loss of airway hyperreactivity, whereas treatment with anti-IL-5 antibody or sensitization of IL-5-deficient mice had no effect. CONCLUSIONS: In mice, CD4+ T cells are alone sufficient to mediate many of the pathognomonic changes that occur in human asthma by a mechanism dependent upon IL-4, but independent of IL-5, IgE, or both. Clarification of the role played by CD4+ T cells is likely to stimulate important therapeutic advances in treatment of asthma.