Quilty lesions, as first described by Billingham in 1981, or 'Quilty Effect' (QE) are distinct endomyocardial mononuclear cell infiltrates that have been observed in human heart transplant recipients, as well as in experimental models of heart transplantation. In the present investigations, the pattern and extent of apoptosis (programmed cell death) and myocyte necrosis, as well as specific lymphocyte subsets in Quilty lesions was assessed. Endomyocardial biopsies obtained from 13 patients at 10-3362 days post-transplant were examined. Apoptosis, as identified by DNA nick end-labeling, was found in myocytes at the periphery of Quilty lesions in 11 of 13 cases (85%), and 'early' stages of myocyte necrosis, as demonstrated by specific staining with α light chain myosin monoclonal antibodies (mAb), was observed at the same sites in 10 of 13 cases (77%) of both Quilty type A and type B lesions. Apoptosis was not identified in the lymphocyte infiltrates of any of the lesions examined. Lymphocyte subsets were characterized using mAb for T cell receptor (CD3), for helper/inducer T cells (CD4), for cytotoxic/supressor T cells (CD8) and for mature B cells (CD20). Immunostaining revealed separate clusters of T lymphocytes with less prevalent B cells within the Quilty lesions. CD4+ cells were found in larger numbers than CD8+ cells in all cases. Non-B, non-T large lymphocytes were occasionally present. Except for the extent of the cellular infiltrate, no major cytochemical lymphocyte distribution differences were found between Quilty type A and B lesions. Myocyte apoptosis and early necrosis at the periphery of Quilty lesions suggest that early myocyte injury occuring in B lesions may represent initial or 'abortive stages' of cardiac allograft rejection. Why these lesions do not progress to overt rejection indeed warrant further detailed studies.