We examined bone marrow aspirates from 100 metastasis-free primary breast cancer patients. In 38/100 patients (38%), tumour cells were detected in the marrow using an immunocytochemical technique with a cocktail of two monoclonal antibodies: anti-EMA and anti-cytokeratin. Median follow-up was 34 months: 15/38 (39%) tumour cell-positive patients have since relapsed, but only 9/62 (15%) tumour cell-negative patients. The median interval between tumour cell detection and relapse was 11.4 months. No statistically significant correlation existed between tumour cell presence and 'established' prognostic factors. However, relapse-free survival was significantly shorter in tumour cell-positive patients. Multivariate analysis showed tumour cell presence as a strong, significant prognostic factor for relapse-free as well as overall survival. We conclude that screening for tumour cells in bone marrow of primary breast cancer patients identifies high-risk patients for early relapse. In particular, patients with node-negative tumours who have tumour cells in their bone marrow may require subsequent systemic therapy.