The immune response to the mycobacterial 65-kDa heat shock protein (hsp65) is considered an important event in the induction of adjuvant arthritis (AA) in rats; this induction probably occurs through a molecular mimicry mechanism involving cross-reactivity against the rat homolog hsp60. To analyze the role of mammalian molecule hsp60 in arthritis, we generated a recombinant vaccinia virus (hsp60-VV) carrying the human hsp60 gene inserted into the thymidine kinase locus under the control of the 7.5k vaccinia virus promoter. Human hsp60 is almost identical to its rat homolog (97.4% linear amino acid homology) and shares about 50% of amino acid positions with Mycobacterium tuberculosis hsp65. The latter supposedly carries a critical epitope for AA induction that is not present in human hsp60. Infections with hsp60-VV of monkey cell cultures led to the expression of the human hsp60 molecule, as evidenced by immunoblotting analysis with specific monoclonal antibodies. Also, Lewis rats infected with hsp60-VV produced specific antibodies, demonstrating the in vivo expression of human hsp60 in the infected animals. Therefore, we used hsp60-VV to analyze whether the delivery of hsp60 could affect the induction of AA in Lewis rats. hsp60-VV clearly reduced and retarded arthritic symptoms when administered to rats at day 7 after AA induction. In contrast, inoculation of rats with a control recombinant vaccinia virus did not affect the course of the disease. The improvement in AA with hsp60-VV administration was associated with a specific immune response, as determined by the presence of antibodies to hsp60 in the sera and the proliferation induced by hsp60 of T cells from popliteal lymph nodes. These results support a critical role for immunity to heat shock proteins in AA. Since the protective construct is virtually identical to rat homolog hsp60, we conclude that immunity directed to conserved areas of this family of proteins is directly involved in the pathogenesis of AA.