Human papillomavirus (HPV) is believed to be the major cause of cervical cancer. To investigate whether a cellular immune response, especially a T helper type 1 response, is related to the natural defense against HPV-related cervical lesions, the interleukin 2 response of peripheral blood lymphocytes in vitro to overlapping peptides from HPV-16 E6 and E7 oncoproteins was compared with the degree of cervical cytological abnormality among 140 women in a cross-sectional study. We compared 66 women diagnosed with low-grade squamous intraepithelial lesions (LSIL), 21 with high-grade squamous intraepithelial lesions (HSIL), and 28 with invasive cervical cancer with 25 women who were cytologically normal but previously HPV-16 DNA positive. The fraction showing strong interleukin 2 production against HPV-16 peptides was greatest among cytologically normal women (35%) and declined with increasing disease severity [LSIL] (20%), HSIL (17%), and cancer patients (7%); X2 test P for the trend = 0.02], whereas the responses against a recall influenza antigen were not significantly different among groups. Our finding suggests that a T helper lymphocyte type 1 response to HPV antigens is associated with disease status. This result may reflect a targeted effect of the disease on immune function or a protective effect of the immune response against disease progression.