Efficient vaccination against the parasite Leishmania major, the causative agent of human cutaneous leishmaniasis, requires the development of a resistance-promoting CD4+-mediated Th1 response. Epidermal Langerhans cells (LC) are critically involved in the induction of the primary immune response to Leishmania infection. They are able to ingest the parasites, to express MHC class II molecules with extraordinarily long half-life and to activate naive L. major-specific Th cells. Considering these unique properties, we studied the capacity of LC to mediate resistance to L. major in vivo. A single i.v. application of LC that had been pulsed with L. major antigen in vitro induced the protection in susceptible BALB/c mice against subsequent challenges with L. major parasites. Resistance could neither be induced by unpulsed LC, nor by L. major antigen alone or by L. major-pulsed macrophages. Development of resistance was paralleled by a reduced parasite burden and by a shift of the cytokine expression towards a Th1-like pattern. In contrast, control mice developed a Th2 response. In vitro exposure of LC to L. major antigen induced the expression of IL-12 (p40) mRNA. In conclusion, our data demonstrate that LC are able to serve as a natural adjuvant and to induce a protective immune response to L. major infection. This effect is based on the initiation of a Th1-like response that is likely to be mediated by IL-12.