Proteasome inhibitors represent a new class of antineoplastic drugs that are considered in the treatment of haematological malignancies. We compared the effects of the reversible proteasome inhibitor bortezomib (Velcade) and the epoxomicin derivative PR-171, an irreversible inhibitor, on primary human acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) cells. Both drugs inhibited autocrine- and cytokine-dependent proliferation of primary AML blasts when tested at nanomolar levels (0.1-100 nmol/l). The antiproliferative effect was independent of basal chymotrypsin-like proteasome activity (showing a 20-fold variation between patients), genetic abnormalities, morphological differentiation and CD34 expression when testing a large group of consecutive patients (n = 54). The effect was retained in cocultures with bone marrow stromal cells. In addition, both drugs enhanced apoptosis. The effect of PR-171 could be detected at lower concentrations than for bortezomib, especially when testing the influence on clonogenic AML cell proliferation. Both drugs had divergent effects on AML cells' constitutive cytokine release. Furthermore, both drugs caused a decrease in proliferation and viability when tested in combination with idarubicin or cytarabine. An antiproliferative effect on primary human acute lymphoblastic leukaemia cells was also detected. We conclude that nanomolar levels of the proteasome inhibitors tested had dose-dependent antiproliferative and proapoptotic effects on primary AML cells in vitro.