Thirty-five evaluable patients with hairy cell leukemia (HCL) were treated with recombinant interferon alfa-2a (rIFN-alpha 2a), given at a dose of 3 X 10(6) units (U) intramuscularly (IM) daily for 6 months followed by 3 X 10(6) U IM three times a week for an additional 18 months in a single institution study. All treatment was stopped after 24 months. Sixty-nine percent of patients achieved a partial response, 11% a minor response, and 3% (one patient) had stable disease. Six patients (17%) did not respond to rIFN-alpha 2a. Two patients (6%) achieved a response but later progressed on treatment. A total of 23 patients completed 2 years of treatment and are evaluable for long-term follow-up at a median of 20 months postcompletion of therapy (range 9 to 32 months). Eleven patients (48%) have had progression of their disease at a median of 10 months (range .5 to 25 months) after treatment was discontinued. Statistical analysis of pretreatment patient characteristics did not reveal any factor(s) associated with a high probability of responding to rIFN-alpha 2a; however, analysis of post-treatment variables measured after 2 years of treatment suggested that a low platelet count was associated with a high rate of disease progression. These findings are compared with other published trials using rIFN-alpha 2b, a similar but not identical rIFN preparation. We conclude that while rIFN-alpha 2a has a high overall response incidence, the rate of disease progression after therapy is discontinued approaches 50%, and that a subset of patients can be identified who are at high risk for recurrence after completing 2 years of treatment.