Background A number of reports have demonstrated that rodents immunized with DNA vaccines can produce antibodies and cellular immune responses presenting a long-lasting protective immunity. These findings have attracted considerable interest in the field of DNA vaccination. We have previously described the prophylactic and therapeutic effects of a DNA vaccine encoding the Mycobacterium leprae 65 kDa heat shock protein (DNA-HSP65) in a murine model of tuberculosis. As DNA vaccines are often less effective in humans, we aimed to find out how the DNA-HSP65 stimulates human immune responses. Methods To address this question, we analysed the activation of both human macrophages and dendritic cells (DCs) cultured with DNA-HSP65. Then, these cells stimulated with the DNA vaccine were evaluated regarding the expression of surface markers, cytokine production and microbicidal activity. Results It was observed that DCs and macrophages presented different ability to uptake DNA vaccine. Under DNA stimulation, macrophages, characterized as CD11b+/CD86+/HLA-DR+, produced high levels of TNF-alpha, IL-6 (pro-inflammatory cytokines), and IL-10 (anti-inflammatory cytokine). Besides, they also presented a microbicidal activity higher than that observed in DCs after infection with M. tuberculosis. On the other hand, DCs, characterized as CD11c+/CD86+/CD123-/BDCA-4+/IFN-alpha-, produced high levels of IL-12 and low levels of TNF-alpha, IL-6 and IL-10. Finally, the DNA-HSP65 vaccine was able to induce proliferation of peripheral blood lymphocytes. Conclusion Our data suggest that the immune response is differently activated by the DNA-HSP65 vaccine in humans. These findings provide important clues to the design of new strategies for using DNA vaccines in human immunotherapy.