We studied the action of α-interferon (IFN) and interleukin-2 (IL-2) on natural killer (NK)-rich fractions and autologous tumor cells from two patients with hairy cell leukemia (HCL). The addition of IFN or IL-2 to the NK-rich fractions resulted in a significant increase in NK activity against the autologous tumor cells. This stimulatory effect was blocked if the target hairy cells (HCs) were preincubated with either IFN or IL-2. Pretreatment of the HCs with anti-Tac antibody entirely prevented the blocking effect of IL-2 and partially the blocking effect of IFN. One patient was treated with recombinant α(c)-IFN. After 2 months there was a dramatic reduction in the number of HCs in the peripheral blood coincident with the loss of the protection effect of IFN against NK lysis of the patient's HCs. NK activity against autologous tumor cells correlated poorly with that against the K562 cell line. We conclude that there is a discordant effect of IFN and IL-2 on NK activity and HC sensitivity to lysis. The Tac receptor appears to play a role in this sensitivity. Caution should be exercised in extrapolating the effects of NK activity against K562 cells to those on HC targets.