Chemosensitivity of B lymphocytes, obtained from 65 patients with B- cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia (B-CLL), Rai stages 0 through IV, was determined using the MTT assay. The results were expressed by the drug concentration required for 50% inhibition of cell viability (IC50). The cytotoxicity of chlorambucil (CLB) was compared with that of fludarabine and the DNA topoisomerase I inhibitors, camptothecin, 9- aminocamptothecin, 10,11-methylenedioxy-20(S)-camptothecin (10,11-MDC) and 9-amino-10,11-methylenedioxy-20(S)-campthothecin (9-A-10,11-MDC), and topotecan. Considerable heterogeneity in sensitivity to CLB was observed, with a median IC50 of 40.5 mumol/L in untreated patients. B- CLL cells from patients treated with CLB had a significantly higher median IC50 of 86.0 mumol/L (P < .01). Untreated as well as CLB-treated patients were divided into two subsets. For the purpose of this study, B-CLL lymphocytes with an IC50 CLB of less than 61.0 mumol/L were designated as “sensitive” and those with an IC50 CLB of > or = 61.0 mumol/L were designated as “0resistant.” After baseline assays, 15 untreated patients received CLB; after treatment, the IC50 increased in B-CLL lymphocytes from 13 of 15 patients. The response to CLB treatment, determined by its effect on the absolute lymphocyte count and by the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group clinical criteria, was significantly better in patients whose lymphocytes had an IC50 CLB of less than 61.0 mumol/L before therapy (P < .01). B-CLL lymphocytes also had a variable degree of sensitivity in vitro to each of the other drugs. There was significant cross-resistance between CLB and fludarabine (P < 0.01). Whereas only 29% of CLB-resistant B-lymphocyte specimens obtained from individual patients were sensitive to fludarabine in vitro, 52% and 67% of CLB-resistant lymphocyte samples were sensitive to 10,11-MDC and 9-A-10,11-MDC, respectively. We have previously reported that p53 gene mutations were associated with aggressive B-CLL and a poor prognosis. B lymphocytes from seven patients with these mutations were resistant to CLB, and five of six were resistant to fludarabine. Lymphocytes from four of seven were resistant to 10,11-MDC, and three of four were resistant to 9-A-10,11- MDC. This study implies that the MTT assay may be useful in identifying subsets of CLL patients resistant to conventional chemotherapy. However, definitive conclusions can not be drawn in view of the small number of patients studied prospectively. In addition, these results suggest the potential of camptothecin-based therapy for patients unresponsive to standard treatment.