Between March 1992 and August 1993, thirty patients with hairy cell leukemia (HCL) were treated in a single institution with 2-chlorodeoxyadenosine (2-CdA) for one course (N=27) or two courses at six month interval (N=3). Sixteen patients were previously untreated, 14 had been treated with alpha interferon (alpha IFN) (N=5), alpha IFN and splenectomy (N=8) and splenectomy, alpha IFN and Deoxycoformycin (N=1). Overall results in 29 evaluable patients were: 25 CR (86%), 3 PR (10%), one failure. The three PR patients relapsed after 18, 24 months and five years. Two were retreated successfully. Two CR patients relapsed after five years. Careful clinical survey, sequential bone marrow biopsies (BMB) with DBA44 immunostaining for assessment of response and detection of residual disease and serially evaluation of lymphocyte subsets counts were performed. Results of bone marrow biopsies study show 1) a progressive reduction in hairy cell infiltration during the first six months after therapy and not after that indicating that the best moment for the evaluation of response may be the sixth month, 2) the persistence of a very small number of DBA44+ cells (80% of BMB). There was a correlation between the presence of > 5% DBA44 positive cells on 6th month BMB and relapse. 60% had an absolute CD4+ lymphocyte count less than 0.2 10(9)/l at least on one examination after treatment. CD4+ lymphocyte level persisted less than baseline level in 8/18 patients tested after four and/or five years. Lymphopenia was less marked in splenectomized patients: 7/7 splenectomized patients tested have recovered a CD4+ lymphocyte count equal to pretherapy level compared to 3/11 non splenectomized patients (p: 0.004). Three opportunistic infections were observed early (first 6 months) after 2CdA therapy: pneumocystis pneumonia, retinitis due to toxoplasma in the patient who failed and legionella pneumonia in a patient retreated after relapse. Two patients developed a second carcinoma 6 and 12 months after therapy. Five patients died, three from a cause unrelated to HCL, one from HCL and one from infection while in second CR. At five years, overall survival is 83% and progression free survival is 66%. Our study shows 1) long-lasting response in the majority of patients after 2-CdA, 2) a correlation between persistent minimal residual disease detected with DBA44 immunostaining and occurrence of relapse and 3) a profound and persistent CD4+ lymphopenia more marked in non splenectomized patients.