Interleukin (IL)-15 is a four-helix bundle cytokine sharing several biological properties with IL-2. By reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction analysis, human cancer cell lines of different histotypes are shown to express two IL-15 amplification products: a 524-bp band corresponding to the IL-15 mRNA found in macrophages, and another of 643 bp corresponding to an alternatively spliced mRNA including a 119-bp alternative exon. IL-15 was undetectable in the supernatant of tumor cell lines expressing either one or both of the mRNA isoforms as evaluated by a bioassay or by ELISA, indicating that IL-15 is not secreted. However, IL-15 could be detected intracellularly in some tumor cells by confocal microscopy analysis. Since the pre-proteins encoded by the two mRNA isoforms differ in the signal peptide sequence, we have analyzed the characteristics of these signal peptides and their possible role in controlling secretion. The two IL-15 cDNA isoforms, expressed in COS-7 cells, induced very low levels of IL-15 secretion. However, substitution of the sequence encoding natural signal peptide(s) with the one from IgV kappa chain in the IL-15 cDNA results in a significantly higher secretion of biologically active IL-15 (15-30-fold) upon cDNA transfection. A poor efficiency of natural signal peptides may represent one of the mechanisms involved in the control of IL-15 secretion.