Interleukin-2 (IL-2) therapy may improve immune reconstitution and reduce the risk of leukemic relapse in the setting of minimal residual disease by augmenting cytotoxic effector mechanisms directed at residual malignant cells. In addition, IL-2 in vitro promotes the release of cytokines including gamma-interferon (gamma-IFN) and tumor necrosis factor (TNF), which also possess antileukemic activity and can enhance granulocyte function. To determine if IL-2 infusion induces release of gamma-IFN and TNF in vivo in sufficient quantity to mediate these effects, we have measured serum levels of these cytokines and secretion by lymphocytes obtained from patients receiving this cytokine in a phase 1 trial. Serum gamma-IFN was undetectable pre-IL-2 and increased to 1.5 to 17 U/mL during IL-2 infusion (P less than .05). Culture of patient lymphocytes for 48 hours produced 1.2 U gamma-IFN/2 x 10(6) cells/mL pre-IL-2 rising to 50 U/2 x 10(6) cells/mL when the lymphocytes were obtained during therapy (P less than .05). Lymphocyte subset analysis showed that both CD3+ and CD16+ cells secreted gamma-IFN in response to IL-2. TNF secretion by lymphocytes also rose during IL-2 infusion from a mean of 5 U/mL to 14.4 U/mL (P less than .01) although no rise was seen in serum levels. The material secreted by IL-2-stimulated lymphocytes is bioactive as addition of supernatants from lymphocytes obtained during IL-2 therapy to cultures of myeloid blasts significantly inhibited clonogenic growth. IL-2-induced secretion of these cytokines mediated this inhibition as it could be partially blocked by either anti-gamma-IFN or anti-TNF antibodies. Preincubation of granulocytes with the same supernatants produced enhanced oxidative metabolism, measured by chemiluminescence in response to N-formyl-methionyl-leucyl-phenylalanine (FMLP). This effect also could be partially abrogated by anti-gamma-IFN and anti-TNF antibodies. Therefore, secondary cytokine secretion may boost granulocyte function and contribute to the antileukemic effects of IL-2 infusion in patients following bone marrow transplantation or chemotherapy.