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During acute rejection, CD4 and CD8 T cells infiltrate the myocardium and cause myocyte death and dropout. CD4 and CD8 cells use a number of cytotoxic mechanisms, including fas-fas ligand interactions, which lead to apoptotic death. Since fas is expressed on myocytes, we investigated endomyocardial biopsy specimens from cardiac transplant patients to determine whether apoptosis is one of the mechanisms of cell death in acute rejection. Serial sections of individual endomyocardial biopsy specimens from patients histologically diagnosed as having grade 3A rejection (n=22 biopsy specimens), biopsy specimens showing a typical “Quilty effect” (n=10), and specimens with concurrent grade 3A rejection and the Quilty effect (n=6) were evaluated using the C-terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP-biotin nick end labeling (TUNEL) technique for frequency of apoptosis in myocytes and mononuclear cell infiltrates. None of the examined sections showed detectable evidence of apoptotic myocytes, even within regions clearly showing myocyte damage. Of interest was our consistent finding that 85-98% of mononuclear cell infiltrates within biopsy specimens scored as having grade 3A rejection had undergone apoptosis. In marked contrast, 9 of the 10 specimens with Quilty lesions showed <5% apoptotic mononuclear cells in the endomyocardial infiltrates. Of further interest was our finding of 85-98% apoptotic mononuclear cell infiltrates within Quilty lesions associated with biopsy specimens scored as having grade 3A rejection. The frequency of apoptotic cells determined by the TUNEL technique was confirmed by histological examination of the morphology of the cells and with a technique that involves detection of c-jun. These results prompt a note of caution in the interpretation of data on the phenotype, cytokine profile, Vβ T cell receptor repertoire, and donor specificity of mononuclear cells cultured and propagated from such cardiac biopsy specimens. The possible reasons for apoptosis of graft-infiltrating mononuclear cells are discussed.