We analyzed CD4+ T helper responses to wild-type (wt) and mutated (mut) p53 protein in normal and tumor-bearing mice. In normal mice, we observed that although some self-p53 determinants induced negative selection of p53-reactive CD4+ T cells, other p53 determinants (cryptic) were immunogenic. Next, BALB/c mice were inoculated with J774 syngeneic tumor cell line expressing mut p53. BALB/c tumor-bearing mice mounted potent CD4+ T cell responses to two formerly cryptic peptides on self-p53. This response was characterized by massive production of IL-5, a Th2-type lymphokine. Interestingly, we found that T cell response was induced by different p53 peptides depending upon the stage of cancer. Mut p53 gene was shown to contain a single mutation resulting in the substitution of a tyrosine by a histidine at position 231 of the protein. Two peptides corresponding to wt and mutated sequences of this region were synthesized. Both peptides bound to the MHC class II-presenting molecule (Ed) with similar affinities. However, only mut p53.225-239 induced T cell responses in normal BALB/c mice, a result strongly suggesting that high-affinity wt p53.225-239 autoreactive T cells had been eliminated in these mice. Surprisingly, CD4+ T cell responses to both mut and wt p53.225-239 peptides were recorded in J774 tumor-bearing mice, a phenomenon attributed to the recruitment of low-avidity p53.225-239 self-reactive T cells.