Recombinant tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) is a cytokine that induces proliferation of neoplastic B cells from patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). To gain insight into the mechanisms involved in regulating TNF responsiveness, we have examined TNF receptor expression on neoplastic B-CLL cells. We have demonstrated that freshly isolated neoplastic B cells from patients with CLL did not express TNF receptors. After 1 day of incubation in culture medium, TNF receptors were detectable in the range of 540 to 1,500/cell. Kinetic experiments revealed that receptor expression was half-maximal after 3 hours of culturing and required de novo protein synthesis. The Scatchard plots of TNF-alpha binding indicated a single set of high- affinity TNF receptors with a dissociation constant of 70 pmol/L. TNF receptor expression in vitro was found in all examined cases. All cytokines tested, with the exception of IL-2, did not influence the expression of TNF receptors. The TNF receptor expression is enhanced in B-CLL cells cultured in the presence of interleukin-2 when compared with the receptor expression of cells cultured in medium alone. Our data suggest that neoplastic B-CLL cells in patients with stable disease do not express TNF receptors in vivo and that an unknown mechanism suppressing TNF receptor expression in vivo may play a role in growth regulation of neoplastic B cells.