Dietary wheat gluten has been associated with the risk of diabetes in animal models of human insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM). To evaluate the role of wheat gluten as a T cell antigen in human IDDM, we studied the cell-mediated immune response to wheat gluten in patients with IDDM and in control subjects. The cellular response to gluten was measured by the peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) proliferation test, and the results were expressed as a stimulation index (SI). We observed an enhanced cellular immune response to gluten (SI > or = 3) in seven of 29 patients with newly diagnosed IDDM (24.1%), in six of 39 patients with a longer duration of IDDM (15.4%), and in two of 37 non-diabetic controls (5.4%). Reactivity of T cells to gluten was associated with IDDM at diagnosis (P = 0.03), whereas patients with longer duration of IDDM did not differ from controls (P = 0.16). Responses of T cells to gluten were low in general: the median SI (range) was 2.0 (1-8.6) in patients with newly diagnosed IDDM and 1.5 (1-5.8) in control subjects (P = 0.03). Cellular responsiveness to gluten was not associated with HLA-DQB1 risk alleles for IDDM in patients. Although T cell responses to gluten were slightly increased in newly diagnosed patients the responsiveness was rare, and thus our results do not support a major role of gluten in the pathogenesis of human IDDM.