Potential anti-leukemia effects mediated by T cells or by natural killer (NK) cells were investigated in chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) patients treated with interferon-alpha. Therapy-associated modulation of T cell and NK reactivity was monitored for one year from initiation in autologous mixed lymphocyte-tumor cell reactions and cytotoxicity directed against autologous CML cells, respectively. During the course of IFN-therapy, NK activity against autologous CML cells increased steadily, whereas T cell reactivity fluctuated randomly. Despite the high level of T cell reactivity to autologous tumor cells in short-term (6 days) culture, 1) they failed to respond to synthetic peptides corresponding to the bcr/abl fusion sequence of the patient, and 2) only one proliferative T cell clone (TCC) was isolated which specifically recognized HLA-DR-matched CML cells. This TCC appeared not to recognize synthetic peptides corresponding to the bcr/abl fusion sequence of the patient; the antigen to which it responds remains unknown. To assess potential immunogenicity of bcr/abl peptides, it was attempted to sensitize T cells from normal donors in vitro. Of 109 cell lines obtained from seven different donors, eleven showed peptide-dependent proliferation. Therefore, although these results show that it is possible to isolate apparently CML-specific T cells from patients, as well as to prime T cells against tumor-specific peptide in vitro, the frequency of such T cell-mediated reactivity appears low and its relevance to anti-leukemic effects questionable. On the other hand, the strong time-dependent enhancement of natural killing of autologous CML blasts during IFN-alpha treatment, a phenomenon not observed for T cell reactivity, suggests that natural immunity may be more important in controlling disease.