CD26 and CD40 ligand (CD40L) are surface molecules on human activated T lymphocytes that play a critical role in the regulation of lymphopoiesis. Both molecules are expressed on a restricted fraction of human T-cell non-Hodgkin's lymphomas (NHL)/leukemias; however, little is known about their functional and/or clinical significance in these disorders. In this study, the pattern of expression of CD40L was compared with that of the CD26 molecule. A series of 67 human T-cell NHL/leukemias and a panel of leukemia/lymphoma T-cell lines were evaluated by immunohistochemistry, flow cytometry, and RNA studies. The overall frequency of CD26+ and CD40L+ samples was rather similar (25/67 [37%] v 18/67 [27%]). However, the majority of CD26-expressing cases clustered in the lymphoblastic lymphomas (LBL)/T-acute lymphoblastic leukemias (ALL; 12/23) and CD30+ anaplastic large-cell (ALC) lymphomas (5/8), whereas CD40L+ lymphomas included a large fraction of mycosis fungoides (11/21 [52%]). CD26 and CD40L coexpression was found only in 2 myocosis fungoides cases and 1 small lymphocytic lymphoma. Thus, the expression of the two antigens was mutually exclusive in almost all T- cell lymphomas/leukemias. Accordingly, lymphoma cell lines expressed either one of the molecules or the relative amounts of CD26 and CD40L were inversely proportional. In contrast, reactive T lymphocytes from patients with non-neoplastic T-cell expansions and in vitro activated CD3+ or CD4+ normal T cells were found to coexpress CD40L and CD26. Results of a multivariate analysis showed that the expression of CD26 in T-cell LBL/ALL patients was associated to a worse outcome in terms of survival, as compared with patients with CD26- tumors (P < or = .0001). Based on our results, it can be concluded that, (1) as opposed to activated or reactive normal T cells, the expression of CD26 and of CD40L is mutually exclusive in human T-cell lymphomas/leukemias; (2) expression of CD26 is restricted to aggressive pathologic entities, such as T-cell LBL/ALL and T-cell CD30+ ALC lymphomas, whereas CD40L is expressed on slow progressing diseases such as mycosis fungoides; and (3) within the T-cell LBL/ALL group of tumors, CD26 may identify a subset of poor prognosis patients.