We investigated the effects of interleukin-4 (IL-4) on the survival of leukemic and normal B-cell progenitors cultured on bone marrow stroma. IL-4 (at 100 U/mL) was cytotoxic in 16 of 21 cases of B-lineage acute lymphoblastic leukemia, causing reductions in CD19+ cell numbers that ranged from 50% to greater than 99% (median 83.5%) of those in parallel cultures not exposed to the cytokine. All nine cases with the t(9;22)(q34;q11) or the t(4;11)(q21;q23), chromosomal features that are often associated with multidrug resistance and a fatal outcome, were susceptible to IL-4 toxicity. IL-4 cytotoxicity resulted from induction of programmed cell death (apoptosis); there was no evidence of cell killing mediated by T, natural killer, or stromal cells. IL-4 cytotoxicity extended to a proportion of normal B-cell progenitors. After 7 days of culture with IL-4 at 100 U/mL, fewer CD19+, CD34+ normal lymphoblasts (the most immature subset) survived: in five experiments the mean (+/- SEM) reduction in cell recoveries caused by IL-4 was 60.0% +/- 6.0%. By contrast, reductions in recovery of more differentiated bone marrow B cells (CD19+, CD34-, surface Ig+) were low (6.6% +/- 2.2%; P < .001 by t-test). Our findings indicate that IL-4 is cytotoxic for human B-cell precursors and support clinical testing of IL-4 in cases of high-risk lymphoblastic leukemia resistant to conventional therapy.