Melphalan has a steep dose-response curve, but the use of high doses results in unacceptable myelosuppression. Strategies to circumvent this dose-limiting myelosuppression would allow for the administration of higher, more effective doses of melphalan. Amifostine (WR-2721) has been shown in preclinical studies to protect the bone marrow from the myelotoxicity of melphalan, and in clinical trials, to protect from the myelotoxicity of other alkylating agents. A Phase I trial of the combination of amifostine and melphalan was performed in children with refractory cancers to: (a) define the acute toxicities of amifostine and its maximum tolerated dose (MTD); and (b) to determine whether the dose of melphalan could be safely escalated when administered in combination with amifostine. Amifostine was administered i.v. as a 15-min infusion 30 min before melphalan. The starting dose of amifostine was 750 mg/m2, with planned dose escalations in 30% increments. Melphalan was administered as a 5-min infusion using the previously defined MTD in heavily pretreated patients, 35 mg/m2, as the starting dose. The dose of melphalan was escalated by 30% increments. Nineteen patients, ranging in age from 3 to 24 years (median, 15 years), were entered on trial. The dose of amifostine was escalated to 2700 mg/m2, which is approximately 3-fold higher than the adult recommended dose, without reaching a MTD. Fifteen patients experienced nondose-limiting (< 25%), transient decreases in blood pressure after the amifostine infusion. Other nondose-limiting toxicities of amifostine included mild nausea and vomiting, flushing, anxiety, diarrhea, and urinary retention. Six patients, three each at the 2100 and 2700 mg/m2 amifostine dose levels were treated with an escalated dose of melphalan (45 mg/m2). All of these patients experienced grade 4 neutropenia (< 500/mm3), and five of six patients had grade 4 thrombocytopenia. The duration of this dose-limiting myelosuppression exceeded 7 days in four of six patients. Although no dose-limiting (grade 3 or 4) toxicity was attributed to amifostine, significant anxiety and reversible urinary retention occurred at the two highest amifostine dose levels. A dose of 1650 mg/m2 for pediatric Phase II trials is recommended. High doses of amifostine, however, do not appear to allow for escalation of melphalan beyond its single agent MTD of 35 mg/m2.