Many patients with B-type chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) exhibit a profound defect in their natural killer (NK) cell activity, the basis of which is still obscure. Hence, we analyzed the NK cells from peripheral blood samples from 11 patients with CLL for phenotype and function, after removal of the leukemic cells with a monoclonal antibody (BA-1) plus complement. Phenotypic analysis of these nonleukemic cells with monoclonal antibodies (MoAbs) against NK cells revealed that the CLL patients had higher percentages of HNK-1-positive cells (23.5% compared to controls with 14.7%). In contrast, VEP13- positive cells were absent or low in seven patients (0.8% compared to controls with 11.2%) and normal in four patients (10.5%). When testing NK cell activities against K562 or MOLT 4 target cells, patients with no or minimal numbers of VEP13-positive cells were found to be deficient, while patients with normal percentages of VEP13-positive cells had NK cell activity comparable to controls. Isolation by fluorescence-activated cell sorter of HNK-1-positive cells from patients lacking VEP13-positive cells and NK cell activity indicated that the majority of the HNK-1-positive cells in these patients had the large granular lymphocyte morphology that is characteristic of NK cells. Thus, the deficiency of NK cell activity in CLL patients appears to result from the absence of cells carrying the VEP13 marker.