The time course of the formation and persistence of repair-induced DNA lesions such as single-strand breaks (SSBs) were determined in isolated lymphocytes derived from 32 patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) using the single-cell gel electrophoresis (SCGE, "comet") assay. After pulse-exposure to N-ethyl-N-nitrosourea (EtNU), the initial amount of SSBs (t0 SCGE values) and the time periods required to reduce DNA damage by 50% (t50% SCGE values) were determined in nuclear DNA of individual cells. The t0 SCGE and t50% SCGE values varied interindividually between CLL specimens by factors of 16.6 and 8.2, respectively. Regarding cell-to-cell variation, no major subpopulations with significantly different DNA repair capacities were observed in cell specimens from a given patient. In addition, a monoclonal antibody-based immunocytological assay was used to determine the elimination kinetics for the cytotoxic alkylation product O6-ethylguanine from nuclear DNA. A strong correlation was observed between the relative times for SSB repair and the elimination of O6-ethylguanine from nuclear DNA. Because SCGE and immunocytological assay measure different steps of DNA repair, this observation suggests coordinated regulation of the respective repair pathways. With regard to chemosensitivity profiles, a "fast" repair phenotype corresponded to enhanced in vitro resistance to EtNU, 1,3-bis(2-chloroethyl)-1-nitrosourea, or chlorambucil. Accelerated SSB repair and pronounced in vitro resistance to chlorambucil, 1,3-bis(2-chloroethyl)-1-nitrosourea, and EtNU were found in lymphocytes from CLL patients nonresponsive to chemotherapy with alkylating agents. Distinct DNA repair processes thus mediate resistance to alkylating agents in CLL lymphocytes.