A hierarchy of progenitor cells is thought to exist in human acute myeloid leukemia (AML), with only the most primitive cells capable of proliferating to maintain the malignant clone. To further characterize this AML cell hierarchy, we evaluated the coexpression of CD34 and c-kit (CD117) on cells that are capable of long-term proliferation in vitro and in vivo.AML cells were sorted for coexpression of CD34 and c-kit (CD117) using two c-kit monoclonal antibodies (mAbs), clones 95C3 and 104D2. Sorted subfractions were evaluated for the ability to produce colony-forming units (CFU) for up to 8 weeks in suspension culture (SC) and for the capacity to repopulate NOD/SCID mice. When expression of c-kit on blood cells from 19 AML patients at diagnosis was compared using both mAbs, expression defined by 104D2 (34% +/- 6% c-kit(+)) was somewhat higher than that defined using 95C3 (18% +/- 4%). AML cells were sorted for coexpression of CD34 and c-kit using both c-kit mAbs, and the subfractions were assayed in vitro and in vivo. Whereas the majority of AML blast cells lacked expression of CD34, most AML cells capable of proliferating to produce CFU after 4 to 8 weeks in SC were CD34(+)/c-kit(-). Cultures of sorted CD34(+)/c-kit(-) cells, supplemented with steel factor, were composed of a large proportion (18% to 87%) of CD34(+)/c-kit(+) cells after 1 week, suggesting that either c-kit expression was upregulated or CD34(+)/c-kit(+) cells were produced. Moreover, the CD34(+)/c-kit(-) subfraction was found to be capable of responding to steel factor alone to produce CFU after 4 weeks in SC. In most AML patients tested (11/15), the only sorted subfraction capable of engrafting NOD/SCID mice was CD34(+)/c-kit(-). The CD34(+)/c-kit(+) subfraction from only 2 of the 15 patients and CD34(-) cells from 3 patients also engrafted the NOD/SCIDs. Only the CD34(+)/c-kit(+) subfraction of normal bone marrow engrafted. These studies suggest that primitive AML cells capable of long-term proliferation in vitro and NOD/SCID repopulation differ from primitive normal progenitor cells in their lack of surface expression of c-kit.