Based on membrane receptors, metabolic activity, and cell density, human eosinophils (EOSs) are a heterogeneous population of leukocytes. EOS heterogeneity translates into biologic significance, since low density cells can be metabolically more active and thus more capable of causing tissue injury. Efforts to identify mechanisms that lead to the development of hypodense EOSs have found that an in vitro exposure to cytokines reduces cell density and is associated with increased cell activity. Consequently, we evaluated the effect of an in vivo administration of interleukin-2 (IL-2) on the cell counts and density of circulating EOSs in six patients who received IL-2 as cancer biologic-modifier therapy. To determine the pattern of EOS density in relationship to IL-2 treatment, granulocyte suspensions were isolated from peripheral blood and then centrifuged over multiple discontinuous density Percoll gradients. During IL-2 treatment, the percentage of circulating hypodense EOSs increased significantly (p less than 0.01) until nearly all (97.6 +/- 1.6%) EOSs were hypodense (density less than 1.095 gm/ml). Similarly, the absolute blood EOS counts significantly increased throughout treatment. On completion of IL-2 therapy, the EOS counts and density distribution returned to pretreatment values. In contrast, no increase in blood EOS counts was observed in similar patients receiving interferon (gamma or beta) therapy. Our observations support a hypothesis that IL-2, either directly or, more likely, through the generation of other factors, participates in a change in EOS density that may, in turn, establish a subpopulation of cells with altered metabolic activity.