The expression of the 70-kD beta subunit of the interleukin 2 receptor (IL-2R) has been examined on peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL) obtained from patients receiving systemic infusions of IL-2. Using monoclonal antibodies directed against p70, flow cytometric analyses revealed a greater than threefold increase in expression of the IL-2R beta chain on CD56+ natural killer (NK) cells from post-IL-2 therapy PBL relative to pre-therapy cells. The level of p70 expression on the post-therapy cells was three- to fourfold greater (based on fluorescence intensity) than the level of p70 expression on YT cells, an NK-like cell line that expresses approximately 12,000 intermediate affinity IL-2 binding sites/cell. Despite the high level of p70 expression, in 125I-IL-2 binding assays only 790-1,290 intermediate affinity IL-2 binding sites/cell were detected on post-therapy cells from six patients. These data represent the first report of increased p70 expression after in vivo IL-2 administration and suggest a requirement for at least one additional subunit for the formation of functional intermediate affinity IL-2Rs. Furthermore, the presence on the surface of post-therapy NK cells of excess p70 that does not bind IL-2 with intermediate affinity implies that the formation of intermediate affinity IL-2Rs is not solely determined by the level of p70 expression, and that the response of NK cells to IL-2 might be regulated by altering the expression of p70 or some other IL-2R subunit.