Herbimycin A, a benzoquinoid ansamycin antibiotic, was demonstrated to decrease intracellular phosphorylation by protein tyrosine kinase (PTK). In Philadelphia chromosome (Ph1)-positive leukemias such as chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) and Ph1-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), both of which express bcr-abl fused gene products (P210bcr-abl or P190bcr-abl protein kinase) with augmented tyrosine kinase activities, herbimycin A markedly inhibited the in vitro growth of the Ph1-positive ALL cells and the leukemic cells derived from CML blast crisis. However, the same dose of herbimycin A did not inhibit in vitro growth of a broad spectrum of Ph1-negative human leukemia cells, and several other protein kinase antagonists also displayed no preferential inhibition. Furthermore, we demonstrated that herbimycin A has an antagonizing effect on the growth of transformed cells by a transfection of retroviral amphotrophic vector expressing P210bcr/abl into a murine interleukin (IL)-3-dependent myeloid FDC-P2 cell line. This inhibition was abrogated by the addition of sulfhydryl compounds, similar to the reaction previously described for Rous sarcoma virus transformation. The inhibitory effect of herbimycin A on the growth of Ph1-positive cells was associated with decreased bcr/abl tyrosine kinase activity, but no decrease of bcr-abl mRNA and protein, suggesting that the inactivation of bcr-abl tyrosine kinase activity by herbimycin A may be induced by its binding to the bcr-abl protein portion that is rich with sulfhydryl groups. The present study indicates that herbimycin A is a beneficial agent for the investigation of the role of the bcr-abl gene in Ph1-positive leukemias and further suggests that the development of agents inhibiting the bcr-abl gene product may offer a new therapeutic potential for Ph1-positive leukemias.