We show that lymphokine-activated killer (LAK) cell precursors derived from patients with B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia (B-CLL) and cultured in the presence of recombinant interleukin-2 and normal human serum (NHS), develop into primarily NK cell-like (CD 57+) LAK cells, whereas identically prepared LAK cell precursors from normal subjects develop into mainly T cell-like (CD 3+, CD 8+) LAK cells. B-CLL LAK cells exhibited greater proliferative capacity than did normal LAK cells. When normal LAK cells were grown in B-CLL serum instead of NHS, their proliferation increased; NK cell levels also increased to those found in B-CLL LAK cells, suggesting that B-CLL serum contains a factor that promotes NK cell-like growth, LAK cells derived from normal or B- CLL patients demonstrated similar lytic activity toward K562 and Raji cells. Growth in B-CLL serum did not reduce their lytic potential. Thus, the altered phenotype and growth exhibited by B-CLL LAK cells and normal LAK cells grown in B-CLL serum does not lead to abnormalities in their cytolytic functions. We propose instead that the predominance of NK-like cells in B-CLL LAK cell populations and the presence of an NK cell-like growth factor in B-CLL serum reflect abnormalities related to NK cell-mediated B-cell regulation; ie, either inhibition of normal B- cell growth and/or growth stimulation of the leukemic clone in B-CLL.