Interleukin (IL) 12 is a 70-kD heterodimeric cytokine produced by antigen-presenting cells (APCs) such as macrophages in response to infectious pathogens and interferon (IFN) gamma. The varied immunomodulatory effects of IL-12 include the stimulation of proliferation and IFN-gamma production by T cells, and it also has a central role in the development of the T helper cell type 1 immune phenotype. We undertook the production of antibodies capable of modulating the response of T cells to IL-12, and in the process we discovered two antibodies that inhibited the ability of IL-12 to stimulate T cell proliferation. In this report, we demonstrate that these anti-bodies recognize CD2, and we show how antibodies directed toward either the adhesion domain of CD2 or its ligand, CD58, specifically inhibit IL-12 induced proliferation and IFN-gamma production by phytohemagglutinin-activated T cells, leaving the response to IL-12 unaffected. A three-to fourfold reduction in proliferation and IFN-gamma production was observed at IL-12 concentrations as high as 1 nM, with complete inhibition occurring at < or = 1 pM. This novel effect is not directly mediated at the level of the IL-12 receptor, as shown by the inability of these antibodies to block IL-12 binding to activated T cells. Furthermore, by using activating pairs of CD2 antibodies, we show that CD2 stimulation strongly synergizes with IL-12, even at 0.1 pM, in inducing both T cell proliferation and IFN-gamma production. Cytolytic T lymphocyte-associated antigen 4-immunoglobulin-mediated inhibition of the B7/CD28 interaction did not affect the T cell response to either IL-12 or IL-2, but the removal of APCs selectively diminished the proliferative response to IL-12. Based on this data, we hypothesize that CD2 has a central role in an IL-12/IFN-gamma positive feedback loop between T cell and APC, providing the key functional link via a CD2/CD58 interaction that controls T cell responsiveness to IL-12. This model provides a basis for future investigations aimed at defining the signaling mechanisms that mediate this cytokine-specific regulatory effect of CD2, and it offers insight into how a cytokine receptor and distinct adhesion molecule can interact to modulate responsiveness to that cytokine. In addition, it underscores the possibility that the clinical potential of an immunomodulatory drug like IL-12 may be governed by the presence or absence of specific costimulation.