The signals that determine the size and duration of the primary T cell immune response are not well defined. We studied CD4 T cells at an important checkpoint in their development: when they have become effectors and are ready to rapidly mediate effector functions, both via direct interaction with antigen (Ag)-presenting cells and via cytokine production. We determined the effects of specific Ag and the cytokines interleukin (IL) 2 and transforming growth factor (TGF) beta 1 on T helper cell type 2 (Th2) effector apoptosis versus expansion. Th2-polarized effector cells were generated in vitro from naive CD4 T of T cell receptor transgenic mice, and then restimulated with or without peptide Ag plus Ag-presenting cells and cytokines. In the absence of added cytokines, effector cells cultured without Ag died of apoptosis after 4-7 d. Paradoxically, Ag both induced proliferation and high levels of cytokine synthesis and accelerated effector cell death. IL-2 directly induced proliferation of effectors, supported and prolonged Ag-induced proliferation, and partially blocked apoptosis. TGF-beta did not effect proliferation or influence cytokine secretion, but it also partially blocked apoptosis. Together, IL-2 and TGF-beta synergized to almost completely block apoptosis, resulting in prolonged effector expansion and leading to the accumulation of a large pool of specific effectors. When Ag and both cytokines were present, the effector population increased 10(4)-10(5) fold over 20 d of culture. The synergy of IL-2 and TGF-beta suggests that they interfere with programmed cell death by distinct mechanisms. Since Th2 effectors are specialized to help B cells develop into antibody-secreting plasma cells, these results suggest that the availability of Ag and of the cytokines IL-2 and TGF-beta is a key factor influencing the fate of Th2 effector cells and thus the size and duration of the primary antibody response.