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Seropositive rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in adult and juvenile patients is associated with the serologic marker HLA-DR4. This association is incomplete; about one-third of the patients lack the disease-associated HLA-DR4 haplotype. The main biological function of class II molecules is to restrict the recognition of antigen by T lymphocytes. We therefore tested the hypothesis that patients with seropositive RA share T cell recognition sites for an unknown antigen and that such T cell "epitopes" are not identified by conventional serologic typing. We generated alloreactive human T cell clones by stimulating peripheral blood lymphocytes of normal donors against a lymphoblastoid cell line from a juvenile patient with seropositive RA. A panel of clones that recognized only HLA-Dw14 cells on a panel of homozygous typing cells was used to analyze class II molecules of adult patients with seropositive RA. By inhibition studies using monoclonal antibodies, the epitopes recognized by the different clones could be further characterized and assigned either to DR- or to DQ-encoded cell surface products. By using four different clones, it was possible to identify Dw14-associated T cell epitopes on all seropositive rheumatoid patients tested who typed HLA-DR4-positive and also on all eight DR4-negative patients tested. Approximately one-half of nonrheumatoid DR4-positive donors carried one or more determinants recognized by these clones; the expression of these allodeterminants in DR4-negative nonrheumatoid patients was rare (less than 10%). Thus, alloreactive human T cell clones are powerful tools to define T cell recognition sites on class II molecules that are not identified by conventional typing. Using T cell clones with specificities for determinants expressed on Dw14 homozygous typing lines, we were able to demonstrate shared epitopes on cells of all patients tested with seropositive RA irrespective of their HLA-D or HLA-DR type. These data suggest that major histocompatibility complex class II antigens of RA patients might be much more homogeneous than demonstrated by the incomplete HLA-DR4 association.