Twenty cases of patients with relapsed acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) were entered into this study for evaluating the clinical efficacy and pharmacokinetics of low-dose arsenic trioxide (As2O3). As2O3 was given at a daily dose of 0.08 mg/kg intravenously for 28 days. Pharmacokinetic study was carried out in eight patients. 16/20 (80%) patients achieved CR. The occurrence of some toxic events including gastrointestinal disturbance, facial edema and cardiac toxicity seemed reduced in the low-dose group than those in the standard-dose group. Differentiation changes were observed in peripheral blood, as well as in bone marrow (BM). Pharmacokinetic study showed that the plasma concentration increased soon after administration of As2O3 with the peak values of 1.535-3.424 micromol/l. After infusion, the plasma concentration was around 0.1-0.5 micromol/l. The arsenic concentration of the plasma of BM aspirates 24 h after administration in five patients was close to the level needed for differentiation-inducing effect. The estimated 2-year OS and RFS were 61.55+/-15.79% and 49.11+/-15.09% respectively, with no difference as compared with those in patients treated with conventional dose (P = 0.2865 and 0.7146, respectively). In conclusion, we demonstrated that low-dose As2O3 had the same effect as the conventional dosage and the mechanism of low-dose arsenic seemed to primarily induce differentiation of APL cells.