Transplantation of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patients with grafts from related haploidentical donors has been shown to result in a potent graft-versus-leukemia effect. This effect is mediated by NK cells because of the lack of activation of inhibitory killer cell immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIRs) which recognize HLA-Bw4 and HLA-C alleles. However, conflicting results have been reported about the impact of KIR ligand mismatching on the outcome of unrelated HLA-mismatched hematopoietic stem cells transplants (HSCT) to leukemic patients. The interpretation of these conflicting results is hampered by the scant information about the level of expression of HLA class I alleles on leukemic cells, although this variable may affect the activation of inhibitory KIRs. Therefore in the present study, utilizing a large panel of human monoclonal antibodies we have measured the level of expression of HLA-A, -B and -C alleles on 20 B-chronic lymphoid leukemic (B-CLL) cell preparations, on 16 B-acute lymphoid leukemic (B-ALL) cell preparations and on 19 AML cell preparations. Comparison of the level of HLA class I antigen expression on leukemic cells and autologous normal T cells identified selective downregulation of HLA-A and HLA-B alleles on 15 and 14 of the 20 B-CLL, on 2 and 5 of the 16 B-ALL and on 7 and 11 of the 19 AML patients tested, respectively. Most interestingly HLA-C alleles were markedly downregulated on all three types of leukemic cells; the downregulation was most pronounced on AML cells. The potential functional relevance of these abnormalities is suggested by the dose-dependent enhancement of NK cell activation caused by coating the HLA-HLA-Bw4 epitope with monoclonal antibodies on leukemic cells which express NK cell activating ligands. Our results suggest that besides the HLA and KIR genotype, expression levels of KIR ligands on leukemic cells should be included among the criteria used to select the donor-recipient combinations for HSCT.