The survival, proliferation, differentiation and function of normal hematopoietic cells are negatively and positively controlled by various cytokines. Survival and proliferation of leukemic cells appears to be influenced, at least in vitro, by several cytokines. Among the different hematopoietic cell lineages, megakaryocytopoiesis represents a complex and unique hematopoietic system that is thought to be supported by some well-known cytokines; however, the hypothetical lineage-specific main regulator of platelet production, termed thrombopoietin (TPO) had remained elusive. Recently, characterization of the proto-oncogene c-mpl revealed structural homology with the hematopoietic cytokine receptor superfamily, specific expression on cells of the megakaryocytic lineage and functional involvement in megakaryocytopoiesis. Several groups purified and cloned the MPL ligand. Extensive in vitro and in vivo studies have shown that the MPL ligand has activity in stimulating both megakaryocytopoiesis and platelet production proving that this ligand is the long-sought growth factor TPO itself. The MPL receptor was found at the mRNA and/or protein level in 40-80% of primary acute myeloid leukemia (AML) cases in various series. MPL expression was not limited to certain morphological FAB types, although the highest percentages were seen in the M6 (erythroid) and M7 (megakaryocytic) subclasses. Among the myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), MPL expression was detected in one third of the cases, in particular in refractory anemia with excess of blasts and chronic myelomonocytic leukemia. Lymphoid malignancies such as acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL) and myeloma were MPL-negative. Among the large panel of human leukemia-lymphoma cell lines studied, MPL expression occurred predominantly in lines with erythro-megakaryocytic phenotypes. Nearly all primary and continuously cultured non-hematopoietic solid tumor samples were negative for MPL expression. A significant portion of AML cases and of erythroid, megakaryocytic and myeloid leukemia cell lines co-expressed TPO and MPL mRNA transcripts, although no biologically active TPO appeared to be secreted by these cells. In several studies TPO induced in vitro proliferation of 14-37% of primary AML cases, predominantly of the M2 and M7 subtypes. TPO significantly enhanced the cytokine-induced growth of AML cells in a substantial fraction of cases responsive to GM-CSF, IL-3, IL-6 or SCF. While none of 30 growth factor-independent erythro-megakaryocytic leukemia cell lines responded to TPO with increased proliferation, TPO strongly augmented the growth of several constitutively cytokine-dependent cell lines (eg HU-3, M-07e, TF-1) which can be made TPO-dependent and used as bioassays. Neither in primary cells nor in cell lines did TPO appear to induce any signs of morphological, functional or immunological differentiation. Expression of the MPL receptor is not correlated with a proliferative response to TPO. In summary, extensive studies on normal human and animal cells demonstrated the specificity and function of the MPL receptor and proved that its ligand TPO is the major physiological regulator of megakaryocytopoiesis. The data reviewed here document the wide expression of the MPL receptor on AML cells and also suggest some proliferative effects on certain leukemia cells, apparently on non-megakaryocytic AML cells as well. Thus, experimental evidence supports the notion that TPO may contribute, at least in part, to leukemogenesis, especially in combination with other hematopoietic cytokines which is of clinical significance. TPO-responsive cell lines represent powerful tools for such analyses.