We studied the effects of interleukin-4 (IL-4) and IL-6 on the growth of leukemic blasts from 40 patients with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). Patients were selected on the basis of negativity for a series of B-cell antigens including CD10 and CD19. Twenty-one cases were CD34- positive (CD34+) (greater than 15% of blasts) and the remaining 19 were CD34-negative (CD34-) (less than 3% of blasts). IL-4 alone (100 U/ml) could stimulate either DNA synthesis (with greater than 2.0 stimulation index) or leukemic blast colony formation in 24 of 40 AML patients. In the presence of other growth factors, IL-4 showed divergent effects on IL-3-, granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor-, granulocyte colony-stimulating factor-, or erythropoietin-dependent colony formation. These effects of IL-4 were observed in both CD34+ and CD34- AML cases. IL-6 (100 U/mL) alone could not stimulate DNA synthesis and blast colony formation except for one CD34+ case. On the other hand, IL- 6 showed synergistic effects on IL-3- and IL-4-dependent blast colony formation in 10 of 12 and 7 of 9 CD34+ AML cases, respectively. Among CD34- AML cases, such synergism was seen only in 1 of 12 cases for IL-3- dependent colony formation and in 3 of 7 cases for IL-4-dependent colony formation. The divergent effect of IL-4 and the synergistic effect of IL-6 were also observed in purified CD34+ leukemic blast populations, indicating that these phenomena are not mediated by accessory cells. The present study suggests that IL-4, alone or in combination with other growth factors, has divergent effects on the growth of AML progenitors irrespective of the CD34 expression, and that IL-6 acts synergistically with IL-3 or IL-4 on the growth of leukemic progenitors preferentially in CD34+ AML.