We prospectively analyzed MDR functional activity by the Rh123 efflux assay in 84 de novo acute leukemias. Thirty of the 60 AML cases (50%) showed a positive dye efflux (in more than 10% of blast cells). In 19 cases, the dye efflux was superior to 30%. Twenty-four of the 30 efflux positive cases were CD34+ and could be studied in double staining. The mean percentage of effluxing CD34+ blast cells was 54%. There was a high correlation between CD34 expression and MDR activity (P < 10(-4)), MDR activity and PgP expression (P < 10(-6)). All the efflux negative samples were PgP negative. Nine efflux positive cases were PgP negative. Five of the 24 ALL were efflux positive. MDR activity did not correlate with FAB subtype (with the exception of AML3: 1/6 was efflux positive), age, white blood cell count or LDH level. Forty-seven AML patients were treated with conventional chemotherapy including cytarabine and an anthracycline. Thirty-one (66%) entered complete remission (CR). CR rate was statistically lower for efflux positive as compared to efflux negative patients, 46 vs 87% (P = 0.003), for PgP+ as compared to PgP- patients, 40 vs 78% (P = 0.01), for CD34+ as compared to CD34- patients, 45 vs 84% (P = 0.005). There was no correlation between P110 expression (32 AML cases studied) and FAB subtype, MDR status and clinical outcome. Two years survival was 20% for efflux positive patients as compared to 54% for efflux negative patients (P < 0.07), 15% for PgP+ vs 54% for PgP- patients (P < 0.04). The finding of efflux+/PgP- cases suggests the existence of other membrane efflux pumps. Rh123 efflux assay is straightforward in routine and could be included in MDR screening because of its potential interest in clinical outcome in AML.