There is a growing interest in using antigen-specific T cells for the treatment of human malignancy. For example, adoptive transfer of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) has been effective prophylaxis and treatment of EBV-associated lymphoproliferative disease in immunocompromised patients. For all immunotherapies, however, there has been a hypothetical concern that mutations in tumor-specific antigens may lead to tumor escape. We now demonstrate that such events may indeed occur, with lethal outcome. A patient who developed lymphoma after marrow transplantation received donor-derived, EBV-specific CTLs but died with progressive disease. The tumor cells proved substantially less sensitive to cytolysis than the EBV-transformed B-cell line used for CTL generation. The major cytolytic activity of the donor CTL was directed against 2 HLA-A11-restricted epitopes in the viral EBNA-3B antigen. Sequence analysis of this gene in the tumor virus revealed a 245-base pair deletion, which removed these 2 CTL epitopes. Hence, the viral antigen in the tumor had mutated in a way that allowed escape from CTLs. Analysis of EBV polymorphisms demonstrated that before CTL infusion, more than one virus was present, including a virus with wild-type EBNA-3B. After CTL infusion, only the virus with the EBNA-3B deletion could be detected, suggesting that the infused CTLs had selected a resistant strain in vivo. Such an occurrence, even when polyclonal CTL lines are used against genetically stable virus antigens, suggests that escape mutants may be a serious problem when CTL therapy is directed against more unstable tumor cell-derived targets.