Between January 1991 and January 1994, 40 patients with hairy-cell leukemia (HCL), 30 males and 10 females, with a median age of 54 years, were treated with a single course of 2-chlorodeoxyadenosine (2-CdA) at a dose of 0.1 mg/kg/day continuous infusion for 7 days. Thirteen patients were untreated and 27 had previously received alpha-interferon. Thirty out of 40 patients (75%) achieved complete remission (CR) and 10 (25%) partial remission (PR). The median follow-up duration for patients in CR has been 48 months (range 30-66). Five of the complete responders (17%) relapsed at 12, 24, 26, 30 and 36 months after treatment as documented by the increase of hairy cells (Hc) in the bone marrow and two of them, who were retreated with 2-CdA after showing an initial impairment of peripheral blood values, obtained a second CR. The remaining three relapsed patients were never retreated and still show normal peripheral counts after 30, 38 and 40 months. Twelve of the continuous complete responder patients are still in CR after more than 5 years. In contrast, 8 out of 10 partial responders progressed after 8-36 months and all of them were retreated with 2-CdA at a dose of 0.15 mg/kg/day for 5 days i.v. Four of them (50%) achieved a CR, three a better PR and one patient died 6 months after the second 2-CdA course because of infectious complications. Two additional patients, both in CR, died after 28 and 37 months because of a second neoplasm. Toxic side-effects consisted of febrile episodes recorded in 16 patients: in seven of them, fever lasted only 24-48 h after the end of treatment and was apparently not infection-related. In the remaining nine patients, showing in addition severe neutropenia (neutrophils less than 1.0 x 10(9)/l), fever was related to bacterial infection requiring systemic antibiotics in all of them and G-CSF in three cases. In conclusion, 2-CdA induces a very high proportion of complete and long-lasting remissions in patients with HCL. In a number of cases relapse at bone marrow level may not affect peripheral blood values for prolonged time. However, in those patients with initial pancytopenia a retreatment with 2-CdA is still effective in inducing a durable second CR.