Human papillomavirus-like particles (HPV-VLP) are a candidate vaccine for prevention of HPV infection, and also are a candidate for an immunogenic delivery system for incorporated antigen. VLP activate in vitro generated dendritic cells (DC) but not Langerhans cells (LC); however, the mechanism of this activation is unknown. We have shown that uptake and activation of DC by VLP involves proteoglycan receptors and can be inhibited by heparin. Heparin has been shown to activate DC by signalling through Toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4) and nuclear factor (NF)-kappaB. The pathway of DC activation by VLP was further investigated in the present study. Exposure to VLP induced costimulatory molecule expression, RelB translocation and IL-10 production by DC but not by LC. The lack of LC activation was reversible when TGF-beta was removed from the LC medium. VLP-induced induction of costimulatory molecule expression, RelB activation and cytokine secretion by DC was blocked by inhibition of NF-kappaB activation, heparin or TLR4 mAb. The data provide evidence that HPV-VLP signal DC through a pathway involving proteoglycan receptors, TLR4 and NF-kappaB, and shed light on the mechanism by which VLP stimulate immunity in the absence of adjuvants in vivo. LC may resist activation in normal epithelium abundant in TGF-beta, but not in situations in which TGF-beta concentrations are reduced.