The effect of allogenic human natural killer (NK) cells on fresh leukemic cells from three patients was investigated. The low levels of leukemic target cell lysis in the conventional 51Cr-release assay contrasted with a pronounced inhibitory effect on the colony growth of the clonogeneic leukemic target cells (L-CFC). The ability of allogeneic lymphocytes to inhibit L-CFC increased if they were pretreated with interferon (IFN), which also increased their NK activity, monitored in parallel cytotoxicity assay, against K562. Furthermore, cell separation procedures, based on differences in density among nonadherent lymphocytes, revealed that only NK cell containing fractions were inhibitory. We have also compared the susceptibility to NK-mediated L-CFC inhibition of IFN pretreated leukemic target cells with that of nontreated target cells. As in the case of NK lysis in general, this pretreatment of target cells abolished the presumably NK-mediated L-CFC inhibition. In conclusion, these data provide the first indication that NK cells can inhibit the in vitro growth of fresh clonogenic leukemia cells from patients with nonlymphocytic leukemia. The identity of NK cells as effector is strongly suggested by Percoll separation and responsiveness to interferon; the final proof awaits more sophisticated purification of these cells.