Expression of the human oncogene TCL1 in transgenic mice produces B-cell tumors that resemble chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) suggesting its role in B-cell tumorigenesis. To clarify the expression pattern and regulation of TCL1 in CLL, we assessed 213 primary tumors by immunohistochemistry (IHC), flow-cytometry and/or Western blot, using a new monoclonal antibody. TCL1 protein was detectable in the majority of CLL (90% by IHC) but showed marked variations across cases with virtual absence in approximately 10% of tumors. Higher TCL1 levels correlated with markers of the 'pre-germinal center' CLL subtype including unmutated VH status (P=0.005), ZAP70 expression (P=0.007), and presence of chromosome 11q22-23 deletions (P=0.04). Intratumoral heterogeneity in TCL1 levels was also prominent and explained in part by markedly lower TCL1 expression in proliferating tumor cells. In vitro exposure of CLL cells to interleukin-4 (but not other growth factors) produced progressive and irreversible decrease in TCL1 protein levels in association with the onset of proliferation. TCL1 expression patterns in CLL are complex and highly dynamic and appear to reflect both the histogenetic subtypes of the disease and the growth parameters of individual tumors. The observed regulation pattern suggests that TCL1 may exert its effects predominantly in the unmutated/ZAP70-positive tumor subset.