We tested the ability of vaccination with virus-like particles (VLPs) to protect domestic rabbits against papillomas induced by the cottontail rabbit papillomavirus (CRPV). A recombinant baculovirus system that expressed only the L1 major papillomavirus structural protein or L1 plus the minor L2 protein was used in insect cells as the source of VLPs. Groups of 10 rabbits were immunized with native or denatured VLPs from CRPV or type 1 bovine papillomavirus by using Freund's adjuvant. Alum was used as the adjuvant for an additional group immunized with CRPV L1-L2 VLPs. Animals were challenged with 5 x 10(10) and 2 x 10(11) particles on opposing flanks. No protection was seen in rabbits immunized with native or denatured bovine papillomavirus L1-L2 or with denatured CRPV L1-L2. In these groups, the lower and higher challenge doses resulted in 27 of 30 animals with extensive papillomas, with each of the remaining animals having a smaller number of persistent papillomas. Progression to carcinoma developed in 20 rabbits. Animals inoculated with native CRPV VLPs composed of L1 alone or L1-L2 developed many fewer lesions; the lower and higher challenge doses resulted in 17 of 29 and 5 of 29 rabbits, respectively, with no lesions, and the remainder developed only one to eight papillomas, which all regressed except for those on 1 rabbit. None developed cancer within 1 year of infection. Rabbits vaccinated with native CRPV VLPs developed high-titer antibodies in an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay based on native VLPs, and passive transfer of serum or immunoglobulin G from rabbits immunized with CRPV VLPs protected against CRPV challenge. We conclude that native VLPs can induce antibody-mediated, type-specific protection against experimental papillomavirus infection.