Most cases of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) arise from malignant transformation of B-cell precursors in the bone marrow. Recent studies have shown that normal and leukemic B-cell precursors bind to bone marrow stromal cells through the beta-1 integrins VLA-4 and VLA-5, thereby exposing early lymphoid cells to regulatory cytokines. It has been recently reported that the pre-B cell line NALM-6 is capable of migrating under layers of murine stromal cells in vitro (Miyake et al. J Cell Biol 1992;119:653-662). We have further analyzed leukemic cell motility using human bone marrow fibroblasts (BMF) as a stromal layer. The precursor-B ALL cell line NALM-6 rapidly adhered to BMF, and underwent migration or tunneling into BMF layers within 5 h, as demonstrated by light and electron microscopy, and confirmed by a chromium-labeling assay. Migration was also observed with the precursor-B ALL lines Reh and KM-3, with a T leukemia line RPMI-8402, the monocytic line U937, and the mature B line Daudi. In contrast, mature B (Raji), myeloid (K562, HL-60), and T lines (CCRF-CEM, MOLT-4) did not migrate. When cases of leukemia were analyzed, BMF migration was largely confined to precursor-B ALL, occurring in eight of 13 cases tested. Of other types of leukemia, migration was observed in one of four cases of T-ALL, but no evidence was seen in six acute myeloid leukemias and two patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Only minimal migration into BMF was observed with purified sorted CD10+ CD19+ early B cells from normal adult marrow, while normal mature B lymphocytes from peripheral blood did not migrate. ALL migration was inhibited by monoclonal antibodies to the beta sub-unit of the VLA integrin family, and by a combination of antibodies to VLA-4 and VLA-5. Partial inhibition was also observed when leukemic cells were incubated with antibodies to VLA-4, VLA-5, or VLA-6 alone. In contrast, treatment of stromal cells with antibodies to vascular cell adhesion molecule or fibronectin (ligands of VLA-4 and VLA-5) did not prevent leukemic cell migration. These results indicate that ALL cells are highly motile and capable of rapid migration within marrow stroma, an effect largely mediated by VLA-4 and VLA-5. In the case of precursor-B ALL, this process may reflect a homing mechanism to areas of selective growth advantage within the bone marrow microenvironment.