Cell-mediated autoimmunity has been strongly implicated in the pathogenesis of vascular cell injury in Takayasu's arteritis. To clarify the immunological mechanisms involved, we examined the expression of a cytolytic factor, perforin in infiltrating cells of aortic tissue samples from seven patients with Takayasu's arteritis. We also examined the expression of a 65-kD heat-shock protein (HSP-65), human leukocyte antigen classes I and II, and intercellular adhesion molecule-1 in the aortic tissue. Immunohistochemical studies showed that the infiltrating cells mainly consisted of gamma delta T lymphocytes, natural killer cells, macrophages, cytotoxic T lymphocytes and T helper cells, and that perforin was expressed in gamma delta T lymphocytes, natural killer cells, and cytotoxic T lymphocytes. In situ hybridization analysis also revealed expression of perforin mRNA in the infiltrating cells. Immunoelectron microscopic studies demonstrated that the infiltrating cells released massive amounts of perforin directly onto the surface of arterial vascular cells. We also found that expression of HSP-65, human leukocyte antigen classes I and II, and intercellular adhesion molecule-1 was strongly induced in the aortic tissue and might facilitate the recognition, adhesion and cytotoxicity of the infiltrating killer lymphocytes. These findings provide the first direct evidence that the infiltrating cells in the aortic tissue mainly consist of killer cells, and strongly suggest that these killer cells, especially gamma delta T lymphocytes, may recognize HSP-65 and play a critical role in the vascular cell injury of Takayasu's arteritis by releasing perforin.