Induction of an optimal immune response will likely be a prerequisite for successful immunotherapy of human leukemias and other malignancies. Dendritic cells are highly effective at inducing an immune response to antigens to which the host is unresponsive, while transgenic expression of the costimulator molecule CD40 ligand (gp39/CD154) and the T cell growth factor interleukin 2 (IL2) are also able to augment immune responsiveness. We therefore investigated whether a combination of these two distinctive approaches to immunostimulation could safely increase the anti-tumor immune response compared to each stimulus alone. We injected BALB/CBYJ mice with syngeneic dendritic cells (DC) exposed to A20 lymphoblastic leukemia cell-derived peptides and proteins which had been acid-eluted from the cell surface. In additional mice, the pulsed DC were mixed with genetically modified syngeneic fibroblasts that were expressing CD40 ligand or secreting interleukin 2 (IL2). Three days after their third, weekly, vaccination, they were challenged with parental A20 cells. Tumor growth was suppressed by responses to pulsed DC alone (P < 0.02). This suppression was further enhanced when pulsed DC were coinjected with fibroblasts expressing CD40 ligand and IL2 (P < 0.0005 compared to DC alone) even though CD40 ligand and IL2-expressing fibroblasts alone offered no significant protection in this model. Mice receiving the full complement of immunostimulants either failed to develop visible tumors or developed small tumors which quickly necrosed and regressed, allowing the mice to become long term tumor-free survivors. Antibody mediated depletion of either CD4+ or CD8+ T-cell subset significantly reduced the level of protection afforded by the vaccination. However, it became evident that this intensive stimulation of the immune system lead not only to tumor eradication but also to destruction of cells bearing normal self antigens. Hence, 60 days after challenge with A20 cells all mice in the DC/IL2/CD40 ligand group developed a severe, systemic autoimmune disorder that resembled graft versus host disease and manifest itself by significant peripheral blood cytotoxicity against autologous fibroblasts, blood dyscrasias, gross hepatosplenomegaly, cachexia and fur loss. This phenomenon depended on CD8+ cytotoxic T lymphocytes. Our results therefore suggest that the most effective strategies of immunotherapy against leukemia may also exceed the threshold of anergic cells, leading to a loss of self tolerance to normal self-antigens and the induction of an CD8+ anti-self effector response.