Cells from one-third of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients are resistant to alpha-interferon (alpha-IFN) as measured by induction of blast transformation. We have previously shown that all CLL clones express alpha/beta-IFN receptors, but that the resistant cells are defective in the induction of the enzyme 2′,5′-oligoadenylate synthetase (2′,5-A synthetase). Thus, the deficiency in IFN sensitivity is localized somewhere between the interaction of the IFN molecule with its receptor and induction of 2′,5′-A synthetase. We have now further characterized the resistance of CLL clones to IFN by investigating whether it is associated with a defect in the activation of IFN- stimulated gene factor 3 (ISGF3), which is involved in the activation of alpha-IFN-stimulated genes (ISGs). A defect induction of ISGF3 after alpha-IFN treatment was found in 4 of 12 CLL patients. There was a close correlation between defective induction of ISGF3 and a lack of enhancement of 2′,5′-A synthetase as well as induction of blast transformation. Pretreatment with gamma-IFN and mixing experiments with extracts from IFN-sensitive cells indicate that a lack of the gamma- component of ISGF3 was the reason for defect in activation in 2 of the patients. We conclude that a defect in activation of ISGF3 is a possible cause for resistance in CLL cells to IFN-induced blast transformation in vitro.