Highly purified CD4+ CD45RA+ cells from cord blood and peripheral blood from healthy adults were studied. The levels of expression of the CD2, CD3, CD4 and CD28 antigens were similar; however, CD45 and CD45RA antigen expression were slightly lower in cord cells. The reduced expression of the CD45RA antigen on cord CD4+ T cells was confirmed in whole blood. Functional assessment revealed deficiencies in cord CD4+ CD45RA+ T cells. Interleukin-2 (IL-2) production in response to specific triggering via CD2 monoclonal antibody (mAb) alone, or CD2 mAb in combination with CD28 mAb showed marked underproduction (about 10% of adult production). When CD25 expression was examined, it was observed that the proportion of activated CD4+ CD45RA+ T cells in cord blood was lower than in adult (about 20% of adult expression). Proliferation to CD2 mAbs or CD2 + 28 mAbs of cord blood native cells was similarly depressed. Investigation of IL-2 mRNA expression under these stimulatory conditions paralleled the results observed for CD25 expression, IL-2 production and proliferation. When phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate (PMA) was added to the cells triggered with CD2 + 28mAbs, the responses examined were enhanced in both cord and adult blood with no significant differences between the groups. These findings suggest that under identical conditions of stimulation, purified cord blood CD4+ CD45RA+ T cells do not acquire similar activation status as their adult counterparts. These findings may help in understanding the reduced graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) observed in cord blood stem cell transplantation.