Antigen-dependent activation of T cells occurs through the T-cell antigen-receptor complex (TCR/CD3). Antigen-independent T-cell activation may occur through the surface molecules CDw60, CD2, and CD28. We wished to determine whether these antigen-independent T-cell-activation pathways could be involved in proliferation of leukemic T cells from patients with cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (CTCL). Whereas CDw60 was only expressed on 28% +/- 7% (mean +/- SEM) of blood T cells obtained from healthy control subjects (n = 4), CDw60 was expressed on 94% +/- 3% of blood T cells obtained from patients with CTCL (n = 4). Dual color immunofluorescence microscopy of the T-cell infiltrate in involved skin of these patients demonstrated that almost 100% of the T cells expressed CDw60. Not only did T cells in the patients with CTCL express CDw60, but triggering of the T cells with anti-CDw60 resulted in enhanced proliferation relative to anti-TCR/CD3 and mitogenic lectins. Other antigen-independent pathways also appeared highly active in the T cells from patients with CTCL because enhanced proliferation relative to anti-TCR/CD3 or mitogenic lectins was found when anti-CD2 or anti-CD28 plus phorbol ester was used as stimulant. Despite the brisk proliferation induced by anti-CDw60, anti-CD2, or anti-CD28, T cells from the patients did not produce detectable amounts of gamma-interferon. The inability to produce gamma-interferon correlates with our finding of absent (n = 3) or weak (n = 1) intercellular adhesion molecule-1 expression in the lesional keratinocytes in these patients. In conclusion, T cells of patients with CTCL demonstrate elevated expression of a T-cell-independent signaling molecule CDw60 and respond to antigen-independent activating signals.