Two human tumor cell lines exhibiting acquired multidrug resistance (MDR) with increased expression of a cell surface glycoprotein (GP-170) were tested for their sensitivity to human recombinant tumor necrosis factor (rTNF). The drug resistant mutant lines (CEM/V, a T-cell leukemia line resistant to vinblastine, and 8226/D, a multiple myeloma line resistant to doxorubicin), were markedly more sensitive to rTNF in clonogenic assay than were their drug-sensitive parental lines (CEM, 8226). As determined by radioreceptor assay, the number of cell surface receptors for rTNF did not differ on the parental and drug-resistant lines. During the first 24 hours after addition of rTNF, there was a decrease in intracellular ATP content in the CEM/V line but not in the CEM line. No differential effect of rTNF on ATP content was observed between 8226 and 8226/D. As determined by RNA dot-blot analysis, total cellular RNA for GP-170 was increased in the 8226/D cells. After rTNF exposure, expression of total cellular RNA for GP-170 was not altered. Accumulation of radiolabeled doxorubicin by 8226/D cells was not altered by previous or coincubation with rTNF. These findings suggest that the effects of rTNF on MDR cells is not related to TNF receptor number and is mediated at a step subsequent to rTNF binding and not by either inhibition of synthesis of GP-170 or by alteration in the function of the GP-170 efflux pump.