We analysed by immunocytochemistry the expression of p53, bcl-2 and ras proteins in bone marrow blasts from 59 patients with acute leukaemia (AL), 36 myeloid (AML) and 23 lymphoid (ALL), and from 22 patients with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS); our aim was to examine if abnormalities in their expression were associated with peculiar biological and clinical findings, or with an altered apoptosis rate, as measured by TUNEL technique. The oncoproteins were expressed with extreme variability, without significant differences among the various morphological or immunological AL subtypes. The mean percentages of bcl-2+ blasts were significantly higher in AML than in MDS (p = 0.01), and in MDS with bone marrow blastosis than in the forms without excess of blasts (p = 0.007). The lowest percentages of apoptotic cells were observed in ALL (mean 1%, p = 0.006), whereas in MDS the apoptotic index was higher (16.7%) than in AML (8.6%) and than in the normal controls (10.8%). but the difference tended to be statistically significant only for cases of refractory anaemia. Whereas in AML and MDS the apoptotic rate was independent of the oncoprotein expression, in ALL there was a significant linear relationship between TUNEL and ras positivity (p = 0.01). Among AML patients treated with intensive polychemotherapy, no differences were observed in oncoprotein expression and apoptotic rate between responders and resistant cases. In conclusion, our data are in agreement with the hypothesis that decreased apoptosis and enhanced cell survival are associated with AL, whereas a high level of apoptosis may be responsible for the ineffective hematopoiesis in MDS; abnormal expression of oncoproteins, even if not strictly related to apoptosis level, may influence disease behaviour.