Of 263 children with glucocorticoid receptor (GR) levels measured at diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), 27 received single-agent glucocorticoid before combination induction chemotherapy and were evaluable for in vivo clinical response to steroid. Twenty-one were glucocorticoid-responsive and 6 were resistant. There was no difference between the two groups in the distribution of age, sex, white blood cell count, immunophenotype of blasts, initial central nervous system disease or mediastinal mass. The median GR level, however, was appreciably lower in the group of patients with resistant disease (6250 vs 17,800 sites/cell, p = 0.06). Five of 12 patients with GR levels of less than 10,000 sites/cell compared to 1 of 15 with higher levels had glucocorticoid-resistant ALL (p = 0.03). All 21 patients with glucocorticoid-sensitive disease achieved a complete remission after combination induction chemotherapy, but only 3 of 5 evaluable patients in the other group did (p less than 0.04). Two patients were studied both at diagnosis and at relapse; both had decreased GR levels at relapse (below detection in one) and failed to respond to glucocorticoid. We conclude that a lower GR level is associated with glucocorticoid resistance and furthermore that a decrease in the level of GR is a mechanism of acquiring steroid resistance.