Using the CD40 system, in vitro proliferation of hairy cell leukemia (HCL) was examined in 43 patients. In this culture system, cells were stimulated by interleukin-4 (IL-4) and anti-CD40 monoclonal antibodies (MoAbs) that were added in soluble form or were cross-linked via their Fc part using Fc gamma RII-transfected mouse fibroblast cells. Proliferation was induced and confirmed by 3H-thymidine incorporation in 14 cases and by the presence of metaphases in 42 cases. 3H-thymidine incorporation showed a heterogeneous pattern: cross-linking of anti- CD40 gave the highest proliferation in 8 cases; in 11 cases, stimulation with anti-CD40 MoAbs alone, without cross-linking also resulted in proliferation; the addition of IL-4 further enhanced 3H- thymidine incorporation in 5 cases, but suppressed this phenomenon in 5 other cases. The CD40 system proved to be very effective in obtaining cytogenetic data. With a success rate of 42 of 43 patients tested, we found clonal abnormalities in 8 cases (19%) and nonclonal abnormalities with involvement of one or two abnormal metaphases in another 7 cases. The chromosomes most frequently involved in the abnormal karyotypes, both structurally and numerically, were chromosomes 5, 7, and 14. By fluorescence-activated cell-sorting analysis of the cultured cells, and by immunophenotypic analysis of metaphase spreads, T-cell growth could be excluded and the HCL-lineage confirmed. Stimulation via the CD40 antigen is an excellent tool for growing hairy cell leukemia cells.