Approximately one-third of first relapses of childhood ALL occur at an extramedullary site without morphological evidence of bone marrow disease. However, the high incidence of subsequent medullary relapse in these cases strongly suggests that leukaemia is present at submicroscopic levels at the time of 'isolated' relapse. PCR analysis of immunoglobulin heavy chain (IgH) and T-cell receptor (TCR) gene rearrangements now allows detection of leukaemia at levels as low as 0.001%. We have therefore used this technique to reassess bone marrow status at morphologically isolated relapse in 13 children with B-lineage ALL (11 with off-treatment relapses, two on treatment). In 12 of these 13 patients marrow disease was detectable by PCR at the time of this relapse--in all cases at levels below the threshold of light microscopy. Where relapse occurred off-therapy this indicated re-emergence of disease. since MRD has never been detected by PCR at this stage in patients remaining in long-term remission. In both patients who relapsed on-therapy the level of MRD at the time of relapse represented an increase on that seen in their previous marrow sample. We conclude that re-emerging bone marrow disease can be detected in most cases of 'isolated' relapse when investigated by this highly sensitive technique. Our findings at a molecular level confirm a long-held clinical suspicion and indicate that full systemic re-induction as well as local therapy is obligatory for these children.