A major limitation to the detection of rare cell types in the peripheral blood using monoclonal antibodies is nonspecific binding of the antibody reagent to normal cells. Detection of rare common acute lymphoblastic leukemia antigen (CALLA)-positive cells in peripheral blood is significantly improved by using multiple flow cytometric parameters to exclude a variety of mature blood cells which may nonspecifically bind the antibody reagent. Monocytes and granulocytes are excluded by gating out cells with high 90 degrees light scatter. By gating on red fluorescence, a variety of mature cell types binding to phycoerythrin (PE)-conjugated Leu 3, Leu 2, and M3 monoclonal antibodies are also excluded. CALLA-positive lymphoblasts from 6 consecutive patients were not excluded on the basis of these parameters. Gating on log 90 degrees light scatter and log red fluorescence in this fashion reduced the incidence of nonspecific binding to peripheral blood mononuclear cells of a fluorescein-conjugated irrelevant monoclonal antibody by 98% from 308 cells per million to 5 cells per million. One CALLA-positive lymphoblast per 100,000 peripheral blood mononuclear cells could be detected in mixture experiments using this method. The normal range of CALLA-positive cells in adults is less than 16 cells per million peripheral blood mononuclear cells. This low background of CALLA-positive peripheral blood cells may permit the detection of early leukemic relapse in acute lymphoblastic leukemia by analysis of the peripheral blood. This methodology can be applied to the detection of any rare cell type by using phycoerythrin-conjugated antibodies to markers that the cell type does not possess.