Interleukin-11 (IL-11) is a pleiotropic cytokine with effects on many different targets. Within the hematopoietic system, the effects of IL- 11 are largely manifest only through combination with other cytokines, including IL-3 and Steel factor (SF). In the present study, we addressed the question of IL-11 responsiveness within the different types of human leukemic cells, as well as the mechanism of action of IL- 11 at the cellular level. Analysis of a panel of samples from different patients with acute myeloblastic leukemia (AML) and myeloid leukemic cell lines indicated that IL-11 alone was ineffective in supporting myeloid leukemic cell growth but frequently enhanced growth supported by IL-3, granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF), or SF. In contrast, three acute pre-B lymphocytic leukemia (pre-B-ALL) and two acute T lymphocytic leukemia (T-ALL) lines failed to respond to IL- 11 alone or when combined with other cytokines. The growth enhancement of IL-11 among the AML patient samples was dose dependent and remarkably constant with half-efficient concentrations in the range of 0.3 to 0.4 ng/mL. The thymidine suicide studies with the patient samples revealed that 40% to 50% of the blast cells were in S-phase when exposed for 16 hours to IL-3 and this level was increased to 70% to 90% in response to either IL-11 or IL-6. Our data suggest that the latter two interleukins act synergistically with the direct mitogenic factor, IL-3, in triggering AML blast-cell proliferation. Detailed analysis with several patient samples further revealed that SF and IL- 11 both enhance IL-3-supported clonogenic growth of AML blasts and the combination of all three growth factors yields optimal growth. In contrast, IL-6 does not further enhance the effect of IL-11. These results indicate that SF and IL-11 enhance IL-3-dependent clonogenic growth through two distinct pathways, whereas IL-6 and IL-11 may trigger the same pathway.