We studied patients relapsing with myeloid leukemias following allogeneic bone marrow transplantation (BMT) for evidence of immune escape by clonal evolution of the leukemia. Relapsed cells from four out of five patients had a reduced ability to stimulate proliferation of lymphocytes from an HLA-mismatched responder. There was decreased susceptibility to lysis by CTL in three and reduced susceptibility to NK-mediated lysis in one. Relapsed leukemias had marked alterations in expression of critical surface molecules involved in immune responsiveness. Three had decreased expression of MHC class I and II, with no change or increase in CD54 (ICAM-1) or CD80 (B7.1). None of these responded to treatment with donor lymphocytes. Three patients showed no change, or increased expression of MHC with no change or decrease in ICAM-1 or B7.1. Two achieved remission - one in response to donor lymphocytes and one following withdrawal of cyclosporine. In one patient transplanted with myelodysplastic syndrome in transformation, interferon-gamma upregulated expression of MHC molecules in relapsed cells and increased their stimulatory capacity and target susceptibility to unmatched responder lymphocytes. These results suggest that immune escape through clonal evolution of the leukemia is a common occurrence in patients who relapse with myelogenous leukemias after BMT.