The SCID (severe combined immunodeficient) mouse lacks both B and T cells and tolerates injected mononuclear cells from humans, the principal hosts of Mycobacterium leprae. A SCID mouse model of leprosy could be useful to investigate potential vaccine strategies using human cells in a context in which the growth of the organism is monitored. Initial experiments determined that SCID mice are more susceptible than normal mice to infection and dissemination of M. leprae. Cells from humans, either BCG vaccinated or from countries where leprosy is endemic, were stimulated in vitro with a number of mycobacterial antigens--whole M. leprae, M. leprae cell walls, purified protein derivative of M. tuberculosis, and Mycobacterium bovis BCG--and tested for proliferation and production of interleukin-6, tumor necrosis factor alpha, and gamma interferon. Cell walls were the most efficient and consistent in inducing all of these activities. In vitro-activated human cells retain function better after injection into SCID mice than nonactivated cells. To test the ability of cells to affect the growth of M. leprae in the footpads of SCID mice, cells from a known responder to mycobacterial antigens and from a nonresponder were activated by M. leprae cell wall antigens. The cells were harvested and coinjected with fresh M. leprae into the right hind footpads of SCID mice. After 3 months, there was no growth of M. leprae in the footpads of mice coinjected with cells from the mycobacterial antigen responder, while growth was uninhibited in mice receiving cells from the nonresponder. Future experiments will determine requirements for antigen specificity in inhibiting M. leprae multiplication.