We have identified and characterized a previously unrecognized form of acute leukemia that shares features of both myeloid and natural killer (NK) cells. From a consecutive series of 350 cases of adult de novo acute myeloid leukemia (AML), we identified 20 cases (6%) with a unique immunophenotype: CD33+, CD56+, CD11a+, CD13lo, CD15lo, CD34+/-, HLA-DR- , CD16-. Multicolor flow cytometric assays confirmed the coexpression of myeloid (CD33, CD13, CD15) and NK cell-associated (CD56) antigens in each case, whereas reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT- PCR) assays confirmed the identity of CD56 (neural cell adhesion molecule) in leukemic blasts. Although two cases expressed CD4, no case expressed CD2, CD3, or CD8 and no case showed clonal rearrangement of genes encoding the T-cell receptor (TCR beta, gamma, delta). Leukemic blasts in the majority of cases shared unique morphologic features (deeply invaginated nuclear membranes, scant cytoplasm with fine azurophilic granularity, and finely granular Sudan black B and myeloperoxidase cytochemical reactivity) that were remarkably similar to those of acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL); particularly the microgranular variant (FAB AML-M3v). However, all 20 cases lacked the t(15;17) and 17 cases tested lacked the promyelocytic/retinoic acid receptor alpha (RAR alpha) fusion transcript in RT-PCR assays; 12 cases had 46,XX or 46,XY karyotypes, whereas 2 cases had abnormalities of chromosome 17q: 1 with del(17)(q25) and the other with t(11;17)(q23;q21) and the promyelocytic leukemia zinc finger/RAR alpha fusion transcript. All cases tested (6/20), including the case with t(11;17), failed to differentiate in vitro in response to all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA), suggesting that these cases may account for some APLs that have not shown a clinical response to ATRA. Four of 6 cases tested showed functional NK cell-mediated cytotoxicity, suggesting a relationship between these unique CD33+, CD56+, CD16- acute leukemias and normal CD56+, CD16- NK precursor cells. Using a combination of panning and multiparameter flow cytometric sorting, we identified a normal CD56+, CD33+, CD16- counterpart cell at a frequency of 1% to 2% in the peripheral blood of healthy individuals. Our studies suggest that this form of acute leukemia may arise from transformation of a precursor cell common to both the myeloid and NK cell lineages; thus we propose the designation myeloid/NK acute leukemia. Recognition of this new leukemic entity will be important in distinguishing these ATRA- nonresponsive cases from ATRA-responsive true APL.