The ATM-p53 pathway plays an important role in the biology of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Its functional integrity can be probed by exposing CLL cells to ionizing radiation (IR) and measuring levels of p53 protein and one of its transcriptional targets, the cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor p21. We have previously identified two abnormal p53/p21 response patterns associated with inactivating mutations of TP53 and ATM, respectively. Here, we describe a third abnormal response pattern characterized by failure of p21 protein accumulation despite a normal p53 protein response. This so-called "type C" response was detected in 10.6% of unselected patients and was associated with resistance of CLL cells to p53-dependent killing by IR, with the clinically more aggressive variant of CLL characterized by unmutated immunoglobulin heavy-chain genes and with a single nucleotide polymorphism at codon 31 of the p21 gene in which Ser is replaced by Arg. CLL samples with this allelic variant displayed impaired IR-induced up-regulation of total p21 mRNA and did not express the Arg-encoding transcript, except in those cases harboring an additional single nucleotide polymorphism (T instead of C) in the 3'-untranslated region of the same p21 allele. Our data provide new insight into the importance of p21 in CLL biology.