Adult T cell leukemia (ATL) is an almost uniformly fatal malignancy of mature T cells associated with human T cell leukemia/lymphoma virus type 1 (HTLV-1) infection. Cells from this leukemia are characterized by the expression of large numbers of receptors for interleukin 2 (IL-2). In an attempt to prepare an immunotoxin with selective cytotoxicity for ATL cells, we conjugated anti-Tac, a monoclonal anti-IL-2 receptor antibody, to purified ricin A chains. Although unmodified anti-Tac had no effect on the protein synthesis of these cells, anti-Tac-ricin A chain conjugates produced half-maximal inhibition of protein synthesis in HTLV-1-infected leukemic T cell lines at concentrations of 2 to 6 X 10(-10) mol/L (ID50). An essentially identical ID50 was obtained with leukemic peripheral blood T lymphocytes isolated from two patients with ATL. In contrast, half-maximal inhibition of protein synthesis in HTLV-uninfected, IL-2 receptor-negative T and B cell lines required 200- to 1,000-fold higher concentrations of anti-Tac-ricin A chain conjugates. Both unconjugated anti-Tac and immunoaffinity-purified IL-2 completely inhibited the toxic effects of anti-Tac-ricin A, confirming the specificity of the conjugate-IL-2 receptor interaction. Clonogenic assays demonstrated that anti-Tac-ricin A chain was able to eliminate greater than 99.9% of an HTLV-1-infected T cell population at concentrations only marginally affecting IL-2 receptor-negative cells. The data presented demonstrate that anti-Tac-ricin A is selectively cytotoxic for HTLV-1-infected leukemic T cells in vitro and raises the future possibility of specific therapeutic intervention with immunotoxins in this disease.