The antigen-presenting capacity of dendritic cells (DCs) makes them attractive potential cellular adjuvants for vaccination strategies. Currently, most in vitro culture systems for the production of these DCs include serum. However, this is undesirable because serum contains growth factors that vary between individuals and could affect DC development. Unless the patient's own serum is used, foreign antigens and the risk of infection will detract from the usefulness of these cells in clinical strategies. In this study we investigated the production of DCs from CD34+ progenitor cells of cancer patients or normal donors under serum-free conditions. We have established a model system for the investigation of DC development and maturation. Dendritic cells that developed from myeloid precursors accumulated after 2 weeks in an intermediate CD1a , CD80-, CD83-, CD86- stage. Intermediate DCs adhered to plastic surfaces, expressed Birbeck granules, and were negative for CD2 and CD14. In the presence of granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor and tumor necrosis factor-alpha, interleukin-4 promoted the development of these stages. Spontaneous maturation of intermediate DCs into fully activated DCs expressing CD83 and costimulatory molecules occurred asynchronously over the ensuing 2 to 3 weeks. This maturation involved increased expression of CD80, CD83, CD86, CMRF-44, HLA-A, -B, -C, and -DR as well as downregulation of CD1a and CD11b. Activated DCs are characterized by the lack of adherence to plastic surfaces and the absence of Birbeck granules. By day 28, these cells were nonphagocytic, potent antigen-presenting cells with an irreversible phenotype. This serum-free system offers advantages in that the process of differentiation and maturation of committed DCs is extended over a period of more than 28 days, allowing investigators to study the effects of individual cytokines or other supplements during distinct phases of DC development in a defined environment.