The proliferative responsiveness to, production of, and the expression of cell-surface receptors for interleukin-2 (IL-2) were examined in 14 children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in remission and receiving maintenance chemotherapy for 6 to 35 months; in 19 children with ALL in remission and off all therapy for 2 to 138 months; and 15 control subjects. Short-term concanavalin A (Con A)-activated, purified T lymphocytes from patients on, as well as patients off, therapy had a significantly decreased proliferative responsiveness to a saturating amount of exogenous, recombinant IL-2 as compared to control subjects (P less than 0.005 and less than 0.05, respectively). Phytohemagglutinin (PHA)-stimulated IL-2 production by peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) was also substantially decreased in both patient groups with the median values of IL-2 produced being 2.2, 2.1, and 8.1 U/mL in the on therapy, off therapy, and control groups, respectively. In addition, PHA-induced expression of cell-surface receptors for IL-2 on PBMC was significantly decreased in both patient groups as compared to control subjects (P less than 0.01). Lymphocyte proliferation to mitogens (PHA, Con A, and pokeweed mitogen) was similar in all three groups studied. These results demonstrate that substantial quantitative and qualitative abnormalities of the IL-2-T lymphocyte system are present in the majority of treated patients with ALL, not only during maintenance therapy, but also for a prolonged period after the cessation of all chemotherapy. These long-lasting defects of the IL-2 system are most likely a late effect of chemotherapy and may result in increased complications in some long- term survivors of ALL.