Major histocompatibility complex-unrestricted lymphokine-activated killer (LAK) cells have been proposed as therapy for a variety of hematologic malignancies. Because these cells recognize and kill their targets independently of their antigen specific CD3 receptor, it is unclear how they might discriminate between normal and malignant cells. We now propose one such mechanism for the selective killing of myeloid leukemia blasts. While both CD2+ and CD2- activated killer cells may inhibit the clonogenic growth of myeloid leukemia cells, only the CD2+ subset effectively inhibits the growth of normal myeloid (granulocyte- macrophage and granulocyte) progenitors. This difference appears to reflect differential requirements for cell adhesion molecule recognition between normal and malignant progenitor cells. Inhibition of the growth of normal granulocyte-macrophage colonies by CD2+ LAK cells is blocked by antibodies to the CD2-lymphocyte function- associated antigen 3 (LFA-3) (CD58) cell adhesion system. In contrast, these antibodies have no effect on CD2+ LAK-mediated inhibition of malignant cell clonogenic growth. Instead, antibodies to the LFA-1 (CD11a/CD18)-intercellular adhesion molecule 1 (ICAM-1) (CD54) adhesion system reduce inhibition. These differences correspond to differential expression of the CD54 cell adhesion molecule by normal and malignant myeloid progenitor cells because less than 15% of normal CD34 positive cells are CD54+ while greater than 85% of CD34+ acute myeloid leukemia blasts express the CD54 antigen. LFA-3, the ligand for CD2, is strongly expressed by erythrocytes, and these cells competitively inhibit killing of normal but not malignant clonogenic cells in an analogous way to the effects of monoclonal antibody to the CD2-LFA-3 adhesion system. The operation of this effect in vivo may be a basis for selective cytotoxicity by CD2+ LAK against clonogenic myeloid blast cells, and could be exploited further with infusion of appropriate monoclonal antibodies.