Peptide-pulsed mouse dendritic cells (DC) primed peptide-specific CD8+ cytotoxic T cell responses very effectively if they expressed minor histocompatibility antigens, which could stimulate a CD4+ T helper cell response. These DC could also prime most syngeneic mice, although there was no deliberate immunization for help (the DC were prepared in syngeneic mouse serum, to avoid any response to fetal calf serum antigens). In contrast, DC were unable to prime MHC class II-deficient mice for cytotoxic responses to the classical helper-dependent antigens Qa1a and HY. More strikingly, Balb.B DC failed to prime B6 MHC class II-deficient mice for cytotoxic responses to Balb minor antigens, even though these two strains differ at more than 40 minor histocompatibility loci. When peptide-pulsed DC were prepared without enzymes (used to release DC from lymphoid tissues), they failed to prime the majority of normal syngeneic mice, even though they expressed high levels of B7 and ICAM-1 co-stimulatory molecules, suggesting that help was provided by responses to antigens in the enzyme cocktail. The enzyme treatment itself did not provide signals that could substitute for help, since DC prepared with enzymes could not prime MHC class II-deficient mice. The observation that highly immunogenic minor-incompatible DC failed to prime MHC class II-deficient mice suggests that in the absence of inflammatory signals, even strong antigens cannot stimulate CD8+ T cell responses without help.