The role of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) in the development of in vitro proliferative and cytotoxic abilities of granular lymphocytes (GL) in patients with lymphoproliferative disease of GL (LDGL) has been investigated. To this aim, taking advantage of the recent generation of specific monoclonal antibodies (MoAbs) reacting with the p55 and p75 TNF receptors (TNF-R) (htr-9 and utr-1 MoAb, respectively), we evaluated the expression and the functional role of each TNF-R in freshly isolated highly purified GL from a series of 10 LDGL patients (six CD3+ T-lineage GL and four CD3- natural killer [NK]- lineage GL). The expression of TNF-alpha transcripts and the release of TNF-alpha in the culture medium at resting conditions and following cell activation were also studied. Our data indicate that at resting conditions both CD3+ and CD3- GL express only the p75 TNF-R. Accordingly, a specific inhibition of phycoerythrin (PE)-conjugated TNF- alpha binding was demonstrated by the anti-p75 TNF-R utr-1 MoAb, but not by the anti-p55 htr-9 MoAb. Following activation with interleukin-2 (IL-2), anti-CD3, or anti-CD16 MoAbs, an increased expression of the p75 TNF-R and a slight induction of the p55 TNF-R was observed. Weak expression of specific TNF-alpha transcripts was detected at resting conditions and on unstimulated cells, whereas both IL-2 or anti-CD3 MoAb induced TNF-alpha mRNA. Under these in vitro conditions, detectable amounts of this cytokine were demonstrated in the culture supernatant of GL. The cytotoxic and proliferating activities mediated by IL-2 or anti-CD3 MoAb were dampened by anti-TNF-alpha antibody, suggesting a role for endogenous TNF-alpha in these functions. Both utr- 1 and htr-9 MoAbs showed a moderate inhibition of proliferative activity, whereas cytotoxicity was not reduced. Taken together, our results suggest that TNF-alpha plays a role in the mechanisms leading to CD3+ and CD3- GL in vitro activation in patients with LDGL.