Drug resistance in myeloid leukemias may be mediated by an increased capacity to repair chemotherapy-induced DNA damage. Some tumor cell lines that are resistant to nitrosoureas contain the DNA repair protein O6-alkylguanine-DNA alkyltransferase (alkyltransferase). This protects cells by removing cytotoxic, nitrosourea-induced O6-alkylguanine adducts. We measured the level of alkyltransferase activity in myeloid leukemic cells freshly obtained from patients to determine whether the alkyltransferase was an important factor in nitrosourea resistance in these cells and whether inactivation of this protein could sensitize leukemic cells to nitrosoureas. Myeloid leukemic cells from patients with acute nonlymphocytic leukemia and chronic myelogenous leukemia had higher levels of alkyltransferase than did myeloid precursors from normal donors (P less than .01). This difference did not appear to be due to the state of differentiation of the leukemic or normal cells. To show that this repair protein mediated nitrosourea resistance in leukemic cells, cells were treated with the modified base O6- methylguanine to selectively and irreversibly inactivate the alkyltransferase and then exposed to 1,3-bis (2-chloroethyl)-1- nitrosourea (BCNU). An 18-hour incubation in 0.5 mmol/L O6- methylguanine caused an 87% +/- 3.6% decrease in alkyltransferase activity in leukemic cells and a 73% +/- 8.6% decrease in normal myeloid precursors. After treatment with O6-methylguanine, clonogenic leukemic cells from ten different donors became much more sensitive to BCNU, with a decrease in the dose needed to reduce colony survival by 50% (LD50) of 6.3 +/- 1.4-fold. A lesser effect was seen on CFU-GM, BFU- E, and CFU-GEM where the LD50 decreased two- to threefold. These studies show that nitrosourea resistance in myeloid leukemic cells can be abrogated by inactivation of the DNA repair protein O6-alkylguanine- DNA alkyltransferase. This method of biochemical modulation of DNA repair will sensitize leukemic cells to nitrosoureas in vitro and has the potential of increasing the therapeutic index of nitrosoureas in this disease.