We investigated the effect of recombinant tumor necrosis factor-alpha (rTNF-alpha) and recombinant lymphotoxin (rLT) in the growth modulation of purified hairy cell leukemia (HCL) cells. In response to rTNF-alpha, HCL cells from five of eight patients showed a 3 to 23-fold thymidine incorporation above their unstimulated controls. The effect was time and dose dependent with a maximum between 10 and 25 ng/ml rTNF-alpha after 120-hr incubation. rLT (1-50 ng/ml), however, could not enhance DNA synthesis in six of six cases. Cell number of rTNF-alpha stimulated cells ranged from 2-3 x 10(6)/ml from days 0-50 whereas cell number of unstimulated controls decreased from 3 x 10(6)/ml at day 0 to 0.01-0.02 x 10(6)/ml after 50 days in culture. rTNF-alpha induced proliferation could be suppressed in all HCL cell populations by 0.3 ng/ml recombinant interferon alpha (100 U/ml rIFN-alpha). TNF binding studies in two patients revealed that both TNF-sensitive HCL cells (1,990 +/- 148 receptors/cell) as well as TNF-insensitive HCL cells (1,261 +/- 101 receptors/cell) express specific receptors for TNF-alpha. These data show that rTNF-alpha and rLT have different effects on the growth of HCL cells. In addition there is a subgroup of patients who show no response to rLT or rTNF-alpha.