Using cell-based aptamer selection, we have developed a strategy to use the differences at the molecular level between any two types of cells for the identification of molecular signatures on the surface of targeted cells. A group of aptamers have been generated for the specific recognition of leukemia cells. The selected aptamers can bind to target cells with an equilibrium dissociation constant (K(d)) in the nanomolar-to-picomolar range. The cell-based selection process is simple, fast, straightforward, and reproducible, and, most importantly, can be done without prior knowledge of target molecules. The selected aptamers can specifically recognize target leukemia cells mixed with normal human bone marrow aspirates and can also identify cancer cells closely related to the target cell line in real clinical specimens. The cell-based aptamer selection holds a great promise in developing specific molecular probes for cancer diagnosis and cancer biomarker discovery.