The use of immunotoxins (IT) to selectively destroy acute myeloid leukemia (AML) cells in vivo or in vitro is complicated by both the antigenic similarity of AML cells to normal progenitor cells and the difficulty of producing a sufficiently toxic conjugate. The monoclonal antibody (MoAb) anti-MY9 is potentially ideal for selective recognition of AML cells because it reacts with an antigen (CD33) found on clonogenic AML cells from greater than 80% of cases and does not react with normal pluripotent stem cells. In this study, we describe an immunotoxin that is selectively active against CD33+ AML cells: Anti- MY9-blocked-Ricin (Anti-MY9-bR), comprised of anti-MY9 conjugated to a modified whole ricin that has its nonspecific binding eliminated by chemical blockage of the galactose binding domains of the B-chain. A limiting dilution assay was used to measure elimination of HL-60 leukemic cells from a 20-fold excess of normal bone marrow cells. Depletion of CD33+ HL-60 cells was found to be dependent on the concentration of Anti-MY9-bR and on the duration of incubation with IT at 37 degrees C. More than 4 logs of these leukemic cells were specifically depleted following short exposure to high concentrations (10(-8) mol/L) of Anti-MY9-bR. Incubation with much lower concentrations of Anti-MY9-bR (10(-10) mol/L), as compatible with in vivo administration, resulted in 2 logs of depletion of HL-60 cells, but 48 to 72 hours of continuous exposure were required. Anti-MY9-bR was also shown to be toxic to primary AML cells, with depletion of greater than 2 logs of clonogenic cells following incubation with Anti- MY9-bR 10(-8) mol/L at 37 degrees C for 5 hours. Activity of Anti-MY9- bR could be blocked by unconjugated Anti-MY9 but not by galactose. As expected, Anti-MY9-bR was toxic to normal colony-forming unit granulocyte-monocyte (CFU-GM), which expresses CD33, in a concentration- and time-dependent manner, and also to burst-forming unit-erythroid and CFU-granulocyte, erythroid, monocyte, megakaryocyte, although to a lesser extent. When compared with anti-MY9 and complement (C′), Anti- MY9-bR could be used in conditions that provided more effective depletion of AML cells with substantially less depletion of normal CFU- GM. Therefore, Anti-MY9-bR may have clinical utility for in vitro purging of AML cells from autologous marrow when used at high IT concentrations for short incubation periods. Much lower concentrations of Anti-MY9-bR that can be maintained for longer periods may be useful for elimination of AML cells in vivo.