Tumor cells were isolated from the bone marrow of seven patients with multiple myeloma and from the peripheral blood of three patients with plasma cell leukemia using Ficoll-Hypaque (FH) density sedimentation followed by immune rosette depletion of T, myeloid, monocytoid, and natural killer (NK) cells. Enrichment to greater than or equal to 93% plasma cells was confirmed with Wright's-Giemsa staining, with intracytoplasmic immunoglobulin staining, and with staining using monoclonal antibodies (MoAbs) directed at B, T, myeloid, monocytoid, and myeloma antigens in indirect immunofluorescence assays. Myeloma cells neither proliferated nor secreted Ig in response to G/M-CSF, G- CSF, M-CSF, interleukin-1 alpha (IL-1 alpha), interleukin-1 beta (IL-1 beta), interleukin-2 (IL-2), or interleukin-4 (IL-4). Significant proliferation (SI greater than or equal to 3.0) was induced by interleukin-6 (IL-6) in six of ten patients (SI of 31 and 43 in two cases); and to interleukin-3 (IL-3) and interleukin-5 (IL-5), independently, in two patients each. Peak proliferation to IL-5 or IL-6 and to IL-3 occurred in cells pulsed with 3[H] thymidine at 24 and 48 hours, respectively; and proliferation to combinations of factors did not exceed that noted to IL-6 alone; Ig secretion was not documented under any culture conditions. Three myeloma-derived cell lines similarly studied demonstrated variable responses. The heterogeneity in the in vitro responses of myeloma cells and derived cell lines to exogenous growth factors enhances our understanding of abnormal plasma cell growth and may yield insight into the pathophysiology of plasma cell dyscrasias.