The activation of HPV-specific T cells within the cervical microenvironment is likely to play an important part in the natural history of cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN). The extent and the type of T cell activation will depend critically on the expression of MHC, costimulatory cell surface molecules and cytokines by keratinocytes and Langerhans cells within the cervical lesion. Expression of MHC class II (HLA-A-DR and -DQ), costimulatory/adhesion molecules (CD11a/18, CD50, CD54, CD58 and CD86) and cytokines (tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) and IL-10) was therefore investigated by immunohistochemistry in normal squamous epithelium (n = 12), low-grade (n = 23) and high-grade (n = 18) squamous intraepithelial lesions of the cervix. CIN progression was associated with de novo expression of HLA-DR and CD54, and increased expression of CD58 by keratinocytes. However, significantly, there was no expression of any adhesion/costimulation molecule by epithelial Langerhans cells in any cervical biopsy studied. Furthermore, TNF-alpha, a potent activator of Langerhans cells, was expressed constitutively by basal keratinocytes in normal cervix (12+/12). but expression of this cytokine was absent in a number of CIN samples (20+/23 for low-grade, 12+/18 for high-grade CIN). Conversely, the suppressive cytokine IL-10 was absent in normal epithelium (0+/12), but was up-regulated in a number of CIN lesions (12+/23 for low-grade; 8+/18 for high-grade CIN). The restricted expression of costimulation/adhesion molecules and the nature of the cytokine microenvironment within the epithelium may act to limit effective immune responses in some CIN lesions.