Based on the fluorescent properties of the dye rhodamine 123 (Rh123), which is transported by the membrane efflux pump P-glycoprotein (P-gp), we developed a functional flow cytometric assay for the detection of multidrug-resistant (MDR) cells. Using drug sensitive cell lines (KB-3-1) and MDR mutants (KB-8-5, KB-C1) experimental conditions were established that enabled demonstration of significant differences in Rh123 efflux and accumulation. Subsequently we investigated the applicability of this functional assay for the prediction of MDR in human peripheral blood and bone marrow samples. Using two-colour flow cytometry, the leukaemic blast cells of six patients suffering from acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) were analysed. In three cases the blast cells showed a rapid and marked Rh123 efflux. In the presence of MDR inhibitors these cells retained Rh123. To determine whether the efflux of Rh123 was associated with P-gp expression, the leukaemic cells were stained with the monoclonal antibody MRK-16. In addition extracted RNA was analysed by polymerase chain reaction to evaluate the expression of mdr 1 mRNA. In all three Rh123+ cases mdr 1 mRNA was detectable whereas only one AML case expressed P-gp. In comparing Rh123 with daunorubicin, which also allows the detection of MDR cells, accumulation studies proved Rh123 to be the more sensitive drug for flow cytometric MDR screening. Additionally, two-colour flow cytometry was much easier to perform with Rh123 than with daunorubicin. Our results indicate that flow cytometric measurement of Rh123 accumulation/efflux proves applicable to detect MDR cells in heterogenous clinical samples.