The ability of endothelial cells to activate helper T (Th) cells by antigen presentation was studied using the murine endothelial cell line SVEC4-10 and antigen-specific murine T cell clones. SEVEC4-10 cells constitutively express vascular cell adhesion molecule 1 but not intercellular adhesion molecule 1. Interferon gamma (IFN-gamma) treatment of these cells induced class II major histocompatibility complex (MHC) expression and antigen-presenting capabilities, but did not alter surface integrin expression. IFN-gamma-treated SVEC4-10 cells were competent at mediating antigen-dependent cytokine production and proliferation of a Th2 clone. In contrast, endothelial antigen presentation to Th1 cells did not stimulate T cell proliferation. The addition of MHC mismatched spleen cells as a source of costimulatory molecules resulted in the ability of the endothelial cells to stimulate Th1 cell proliferation in an antigen-specific manner. The failure of the endothelial cell line alone to support Th1 cell proliferation correlated with the failure to stimulate interleukin 2 (IL-2) gene expression. T cell exposure to the endothelial cells plus antigen resulted in upregulation of IL-2 receptors and an enhanced response to subsequent antigen presentation by splenic antigen-presenting cells. Despite the lack of functional costimulators for IL-2 expression, antigen presentation by the endothelial cell line did not induce Th1 cell anergy, indicating that costimulator deficiency for IL-2 expression is not obligatorily linked to anergy induction. Thus, endothelial cells are capable of presenting antigens to helper T lymphocytes, but stimulate only partial T cell responses. These partial responses may serve to selectively stimulate transmigration of antigen-specific T cells and may enhance functional responses upon subsequent, extravascular antigen exposure.