The effects of three monoclonal antibodies (B3/25, 43/31, and 42/6) reactive with human transferrin (Tf) receptors on growth of normal and malignant myeloid cells were examined using in vitro culture techniques. When added directly to cultures, all three antibodies caused dose-dependent inhibition of normal granulocyte/macrophage progenitor (CFU-GM) growth. Monoclonal antibody 42/6 was by far the most potent of the three, with an ID50 of less than 5 micrograms/ml. Identical effects were seen on CFU-GM from three patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia. Growth of colonies from two myeloid leukemia cells lines (KG-I, HL60) was also inhibited by all three antibodies, and these cells were generally more sensitive than normal CFU-GM. Blast colony-forming cells from three patients with acute non-lymphocytic leukemia were relatively resistant to the antibodies, and CFU-GM from a patient with myeloid metaplasia were resistant (ID50 greater than 50 micrograms/ml) to 42/6. In liquid culture, growth of the leukemic cell lines was inhibited by saturating concentrations of the three antibodies, although in both liquid and colony culture recovery was seen even after exposure to antibody for periods of up to 72 h. Analysis of the cell-cycle status of these cells showed that the antibodies did not cause accumulation of cells in any particular phase of the cell cycle. Addition to cultures of large quantities of human Tf failed to reverse the inhibitory effects of the antibodies. Competitive binding studies on the leukemia cell lines showed that only 42/6 inhibited binding of Tf to its receptor, although all three antibodies inhibited cell growth. Addition of Fe chelate (as ferric nitriloacetic acid, FeNTA) failed to reverse the inhibitory effects of the antibodies on CFU-GM and HL60 cells, but had variable effects on KG-I cell growth. FeNTA fully reversed inhibitory effects of 42/6 on KG-I cells. We conclude that monoclonal antibodies to Tf receptors can inhibit growth of both normal and malignant myeloid cells. Overall, no selectivity for malignant vs normal cells is apparent, although malignant cells from one individual were more sensitive to colony inhibition by 43/31 monoclonal antibody than normal CFU-GM.