The T-cell-mediated immune response plays a crucial role in defense against hepatotropic viruses as well as in the pathogenesis of viral chronic hepatitides. However, very little is known about the role of specific T cells during hepatitis delta virus (HDV) infection in humans. In this study, the T-cell response to HDV in chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) carriers with HDV superinfection was investigated at different levels. Analysis of peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) proliferation in response to a recombinant form of large hepatitis delta antigen (HDAg) revealed that 8 of 30 patients studied (27%) specifically responded to HDAg. By employing synthetic peptides spanning the entire HDAg sequence, we found that T-cell recognition was directed against different antigenic determinants, with patient-to-patient variation in the pattern of response to peptides. Interestingly, all responders had signs of inactive HDV-induced disease, while none of the patients with active disease and none of the control subjects showed any significant proliferation. More accurate information about the specific T-cell response was obtained at the clonal level. A panel of HDAg-specific CD4+ T-cell clones from three HDV-infected individuals and fine-specificity analysis revealed that the clones tested individually recognized four epitopes corresponding to amino acids (aa) 26 to 41, 50 to 65, 66 to 81, or 106 to 121 of HDAg sequence. The study of human leukocyte antigen (HLA) restriction revealed that peptides 50 to 65 and 106 to 121 were presented to specific T cells in association with multiple class II molecules. In addition, peptide 26 to 41 was efficiently generated after processing of HDAg through the endogenous processing pathway. Cytokine secretion analysis showed that all the CD4+ T-cell clones assayed were able to produce high levels of gamma interferon (IFN-gamma), belonging either to T helper-1 (Th1) or Th0 subsets and that some of them were cytotoxic in a specific assay. This study provides the first evidence that detection of a specific T-cell response to HDAg in the peripheral blood of individuals with hepatitis delta is related to the decrease of HDV-induced disease activity. The HDAg epitopes identified here and particularly those recognized by CD4+ T cells in association with multiple major histocompatibility complex class II molecules may be potentially exploited for the preparation of a vaccine for prophylaxis and therapy of HDV infection.