Because anemia in patients with bronchopulmonary dysplasia is characterized by inappropriately low serum concentrations of erythropoietin but increased in vitro sensitivity of erythroid progenitors to erythropoietin, we speculated that administration of human recombinant erythropoietin would correct this anemia. Fifteen infants with the anemia of bronchopulmonary dysplasia were randomly assigned to receive erythropoietin or placebo subcutaneously for 10 days. Changes in reticulocyte count, hematocrit, blood lactate concentration, neutrophil count, platelet count, heart rate, oxygen requirement, weight gain, and number of transfusions were assessed. In the 10 erythropoietin recipients (99 +/- 12 days of age), hematocrit values increased from 0.325 +/- 0.006 to 0.381 +/- 0.013 (mean +/- SEM; p < 0.005) and reticulocyte counts from 122 +/- 20 to 446 +/- 48 x 10(3)/microliters (p < 0.005); lactate values remained unchanged. In the five placebo recipients (91 +/- 12 days of age), hematocrits and reticulocyte counts remained unchanged, and lactate values increased from 0.73 +/- 0.14 to 1.34 +/- 0.25 mumol/gm (p < 0.05). During the 30 days after the treatment period, one erythropoietin recipient and four placebo recipients were given transfusions. Other measured variables remained unchanged in both groups. We conclude that erythropoietin is effective in treatment of the anemia of bronchopulmonary dysplasia.