Activated killer cells, unrestricted by major histocompatibility (MHC) antigens circulate in the peripheral blood of patients who have undergone autologous and allogeneic bone marrow transplant (BMT) and may contribute to the reduced risk of leukemic relapse observed after these procedures. Interleukin-2 (IL-2) in vitro augments this cytotoxicity and used therapeutically might thereby promote the eradication of minimal residual disease. In order to assess whether these effects on cytotoxicity can be reproduced in vivo, we studied changes in number, phenotype, and MHC unrestricted cytotoxicity of peripheral blood mononuclear cells obtained from patients with hematologic malignancy receiving IL-2 infusions. Patients with acute myeloid leukemia and multiple myeloma were treated after cytotoxic chemotherapy or autologous BMT. IL-2 infusions produced an initial lymphopenia, followed by a progressive recovery in mononuclear cell numbers and a rebound lymphocytosis after the termination of treatment. This affected all lymphocyte subsets; in particular CD25 (IL-2 receptor) positive cell numbers rose sevenfold. Cells with the ability to kill a natural killer (NK)-resistant, lymphokine activated killer cell (LAK)-sensitive target appeared in the circulation during 16 of 19 infusions and mean LAK activity rose from 5.9% to 15.5% during infusion (E:T ratio, 50:1; P less than .001). During IL-2 infusion, cells present in the peripheral blood inhibited the growth of myeloid leukemia blasts in agar after overnight co-culture. Depletion experiments showed that LAK activity was mediated by cells of both CD3- CD16+ (NK derived) and CD3+ CD16- (T derived) subsets. LAK precursor activity in peripheral blood also significantly increased during IL-2 infusion. Increases in major histocompatibility complex (MHC) unrestricted cytotoxicity can be produced by IL-2 infusions in vivo and may result in improved relapse-free survival following chemotherapy or BMT.