The preclinical pharmacology of 5-aza-2'-deoxycytidine (decitabine, 5AZA-CdR) is reviewed. 5AZA-CdR, an analogue of deoxycytidine, is a prodrug that requires metabolic activation by deoxycytidine kinase. The active inhibitor in the cell is its triphosphate form (5AZA-dCTP), which incorporates very readily into DNA to produce an inhibition of DNA methyltransferase. The mechanism responsible for the antileukemic action of 5AZA-CdR is related to its reversal of epigenetic silencing by aberrant DNA methylation of genes that suppress leukemiogenesis. 5AZA-CdR is an S-phase-specific agent. At concentrations in the range of micromolars this analogue can induce terminal differentiation and loss of clonogenicity of human leukemic cells. Drug resistance to 5AZA-CdR occurs primarily by reduction in deoxycytidine kinase activity or increase in the activity of cytidine deaminase, the enzyme that inactivates this analogue. 5AZA-CdR is a very potent antileukemic agent in animal models, more effective than the related antileukemic drug, cytosine arabinoside. In humans, 5AZA-CdR has a short half-life of 15 to 25 minutes due to rapid inactivation by liver cytidine deaminase. The major toxicity produced by 5AZA-CdR is myelosuppression. Preliminary clinical studies in patients with hematologic malignancies indicate that 5AZA-CdR is an active chemotherapeutic agent. The optimal dose-schedule for this interesting epigenetic agent with a novel mechanism of action remains to be determined. Translation of the pharmacology of 5AZA-CdR into therapeutic regimens based on scientific rationale can be used to obtain this objective.