To understand the molecular determinants of measles virus (MV) virulence, we have used the SCID-hu thymus/liver xenograft model (SCID-hu thy/liv) in which in vivo MV virulence phenotypes are faithfully duplicated. Stromal epithelial and monocytic cells are infected by MV in thymus implants, and virulent strains induce massive thymocyte apoptosis, although thymocytes are not infected. To determine whether passage of an avirulent vaccine strain in human tissue increases virulence, we studied a virus isolated from thymic tissue 90 days after infection with the vaccine strain Moraten (pMor-1) and a virus isolated from an immunodeficient child with progressive vaccine-induced disease (Hu2). These viruses were compared to a minimally passaged wild-type Edmonston strain (Ed-wt) and the vaccine strain Moraten. pMor-1, Hu2, and Ed-wt displayed virulent phenotypes in thymic implants, with high levels of virus being detected by 3 days after infection (10(5.2), 10(2.8), and 10(3. 4), respectively) and maximal levels being detected between 7 and 14 days after infection. In contrast, Moraten required over 14 days to grow to detectable levels. pMor-1 produced the highest levels of virus throughout infection, suggesting thymic adaptation of this strain. Similar to other virulent strains, Ed-wt, Hu2, and pMor-1 caused a decrease in the number of viable thymocytes as assessed by trypan blue exclusion and fluorescence-activated cell sorter analysis. Thymic architecture was also disrupted by these strains. Sequence analysis of the hemagglutinin (H) and matrix (M) genes showed no common changes in Hu2 and pMor-1. M sequences were identical in pMor-1 and Mor and varied in H at amino acid 469 (threonine to alanine), a position near the base of propeller 4 in the propeller blade/stem model of H structure. Further study will provide insights into the determinants of virulence.