MAP kinase/ERK kinase (MEK)-extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) kinases are frequently activated in acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), and can have prosurvival function. The purpose of this study was to induce downmodulation of MEK-ERK activation in AML primary blasts in order to detect the effect on cell cycle progression and on the apoptosis of leukemic cells. We investigated 14 cases of AML with high ERK 1/2 activity and four cases with undetectable or very low activity. After 24 h incubation of the AML blasts with high ERK activity using PD98059 (New England BioLabs, Beverly, MA, USA), a selective inhibitor of MEK1 phosphorylation, at concentrations of 20 and 40 microM, we observed a strong decrease in the levels of ERK1/2 activity. A significant decrease of blast cell proliferation compared with untreated controls was found. In contrast, the proliferation of blast cells that expressed low or undetectable levels of ERK activity was not inhibited. Time-course analysis demonstrated that the downmodulation of MEK1/2, ERK1 and ERK2 dual-phosphorylation was evident even after 3 h of treatment with 20 and 40 microM. The cleavage of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP), an early sign of apoptosis, appeared after 18 h of PD98059 treatment at concentrations of 20 and 40 microM in eight of the 14 cases. After 24 h of treatment, cleaved PARP appeared in all 14 cases. Time-course analysis of cell cycle progression and apoptosis showed that PD98059 induced a G1-phase accumulation with low or undetectable levels of apoptosis after 24 h incubation; after 48 and 72 h incubation, a significant increase of apoptosis was observed. Thus, the primary effect of ERK downmodulation was a cell cycle arrest followed by the apoptosis of a significant percentage of the leukemic blasts. The preclinical model of leukemia treatment reported in this paper makes further comment with regard to MEK1 inhibition as a useful antileukemic target, and encourages the conducting of in vivo studies and clinical investigations.