Detection of isolated tumor cells (TC) in bone marrow (BM) from patients with breast cancer is usually accomplished by immunocytochemical (ICC) analysis of up to 2 X 10(6) mononuclear cells (MNC). However, this method is cumbersome if large numbers of BM cells (i.e. > 1 X 10(7) cells) are to be analyzed. This emphasizes the need for TC enrichment strategies. This report describes immunomagnetic separation (IMS) techniques for enrichment and detection of viable breast carcinoma cells in BM and peripheral blood (PB). The positive IMS technique was performed by incubation of MNC with 2.8 microns magnetic particles (rat antimouse IgG1 M280-Dynabeads) coated with monoclonal antibody (mAb) against epithelial surface antigens. The rosetted tumor cells were then visualized by ICC staining using alkaline phosphatase-conjugated A45-B/B3 anticytokeratin mAb (Fab). The negative IMS technique was performed by incubation of MNC with anti-CD45-coated M450-Dynabeads (4.5 microns), followed by ICC staining of the nonrosetted cells. When 1000, 100, and 10 breast carcinoma cells were mixed with 1 X 10(7) MNC, an average of 748 (n = 9), 70 (n = 10), and 7.8 TC (n = 8), respectively, were detected with the positive IMS technique. With the negative IMS technique, 648 (n = 8), 57.8 (n = 6), and 7.3 TC (n = 6), respectively, were detected. The analysis of 1 X 10(7) MNC with the IMS techniques was compared with the ICC analysis of 2 X 10(6) unseparated MNC. A mean 3.7-fold (range 1.5-6.4) to 4.2-fold (2.5-8.2) (positive IMS) and 3.1-fold (range 2.0-5.0) to 3.8-fold (2.0-6.0) (negative IMS) higher TC detection frequency was achieved after enrichment by IMS in experiments with 100 and 1000 TC/10(7) MNC. The IMS techniques were used for examination of BM samples from locally advanced breast cancer patients. A 5.3-fold mean increase (range 2.1-13.3) in the number of TC detected was obtained when the use of positive and negative IMS together was compared with the direct ICC analysis of unseparated MNC (n = 11). Enrichment of TC by IMS techniques enables us to examine large numbers of MNC from BM or PB, which can result in the detection and characterization of minimal residual disease with increased sensitivity and specificity.