The capacity to generate lymphokine-activated killer (LAK) cells and the susceptibility of the neoplastic cells to both allogeneic and autologous LAK effectors were studied in B and T chronic lymphoproliferative disorders. While in B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia (B-CLL) the depressed natural killer function could be restored after a 7-day incubation with recombinant interleukin (IL-2), B-CLL mononuclear cells showed a reduced LAK activity compared with normal LAK cells. Furthermore, in all but 1 of the 20 B-CLL samples tested the leukemic cells were totally resistant to autologous LAK effectors. In most cases the leukemic cells were also resistant to normal allogeneic LAK cells. Competition experiments demonstrated that the patients' LAK cells, as well as normal LAK effectors, were capable of recognizing B-CLL cells, pointing, therefore, to a postbinding cytolytic defect. In hairy cell leukemia (HCL) an overall reduced LAK activity against allogeneic targets was documented, but, at variance from B-CLL, hairy cells were often susceptible to the lytic effect of normal LAK cells, and in half of the cases tested the neoplastic population was also sensitive in an autologous system. Similarly to B- CLL, in the great majority of T chronic lymphoproliferative disorders studied, the pathologic cells were resistant to normal and autologous LAK effectors and a defective LAK generation was found. These results demonstrate that in most B and T chronic leukemias the LAK function is defective and, when inducible, does not appear directed against the leukemic population. The possibility of exploiting an immunotherapeutic approach with IL-2/LAK cells in the management of chronic lymphoproliferative disorders does not gain support by these findings.