There is increasing evidence that the biochemical and cellular phenomena induced by blood/ membrane/dialysate interactions contribute to dialysis-related intradialytic and long-term complications. However, there is a lack of large, prospective, randomized trials comparing biocompatible and bioincompatible membranes, and convective and diffusive treatment modalities. The primary aim of this prospective, randomized trial was to evaluate whether the use of polysulfone membrane with bicarbonate dialysate offers any advantage (in terms of treatment tolerance, nutritional parameters and pre-treatment beta-microglobulin levels) over a traditional membrane (Cuprophan). A secondary aim was to assess whether the use of more sophisticated methods consisting of a biocompatible synthetic membrane with different hydraulic permeability at different ultrafiltration rate (high-flux hemodialysis and hemodiafiltration) offers any further advantages. Seventy-one Centers were involved and stratified according to the availability of only the first two or all four of the following techniques: Cuprophan hemodialysis (Cu-HD), low-flux polysulfone hemodialysis (LfPS-HD), high-flux polysulfone high-flux hemodialysis (HfPS-HD), and high-flux polysulfone hemodiafiltration (HfPS-HDF). The 380 eligible patients were randomized to one of the two or four treatments (132 to Cu-HD, 147 to LfPS-HD, 51 to HfPS-HD and 50 to HfPS-HDF). The follow-up was 24 months. No statistical difference was observed in the algebraic sum of the end points between bicarbonate dialysis with Cuprophan or with low-flux polysulfone, or among the four dialysis methods under evaluation. There was a significant decrease in pre-dialysis plasma beta 2-microglobulin levels in high-flux dialysis of 9.04 +/- 10.46 mg/liter (23%) and in hemodiafiltration of 6.35 +/- 12.28 mg/liter (16%), both using high-flux polysulfone membrane in comparison with Cuprophan and low-flux polysulfone membranes (P = 0.032). The significant decrease in pre-dialysis plasma beta 2-microglobulin levels could have a clinical impact when one considers that beta 2-microglobulin accumulation and amyloidosis are important long-term dialysis-related complications.