IL-15 and SCF fail to induce NK differentiation and proliferation of CD34+ hematopoietic progenitors from chronic myeloid leukemia patients in contrast to normal stem cells although, both normal and leukemic CD34+ cells display comparable expression of c-kit or IL-15 receptor subunits. Interestingly, confocal microscopy analysis revealed that leukemic and most normal CD34+ cells produce and secrete IL-15, as shown by its trafficking through the Golgi apparatus and early endosomes. However, only leukemic progenitors express the membrane bound IL-15. Colocalization and internalization of IL-15Rbeta/gammac and IL-15Ralpha/gammac complexes indicated that IL-15 was specifically uptaken by leukemic progenitors. We also demonstrated that in both normal and leukemic progenitors, the signaling kinase Jak3 is constitutively pre-associated with the gammac chain. Anti-IL-15 neutralizing mAb treatment resulted in down-regulation of gammac chain and disruption of gammac/Jak3 interaction in normal but had no effect in leukemic progenitors. Our results suggest the existence in both normal and leukemic CD34+ cells of a constitutive production of a bioactive IL-15 that does not lead to NK differentiation and further indicate that membrane bound IL-15 and constitutive activation of gammac are hallmarks of leukemic progenitors. Oncogene (2000).