Anemia is a frequent complication of multiple myeloma, becoming chronic in patients who are resistant to chemotherapy. This randomized, parallel, controlled multicenter study (71 patients receiving concomitant chemotherapy) evaluated the efficacy and safety of epoetin alfa in improving anemia and eliminating the need for transfusions in multiple myeloma patients refractory to conventional first- or second-line chemotherapy. Forty patients were treated with subcutaneous epoetin alfa (150 IU/kg per dose, increasing to 300 IU/kg per dose, every 3 weeks) for 6 months, and 31 entered a control group. The epoetin alfa group had a significantly (P < or = 0.001) greater percentage of patients (75% vs. 21%) with increases in hemoglobin levels and/or reduced transfusion requirements. In 44 non pre-transfused patients (20 controls, 24 in the epoetin alfa group), the mean increase in hemoglobin was significantly (P < or = 0.0001) greater in the epoetin alfa group (+2.1 vs. -0.2 g/dl). Increases in hematocrit and red blood cells were also significantly (P < or = 0.0001) greater in epoetin alfa-treated patients, with corresponding reductions in transfusion requirement. In the 27 pre-transfused patients (11 controls, 16 in the epoetin alfa group), there was a trend towards reduced transfusional need in epoetin alfa-treated patients. Thus, in patients with multiple myeloma refractory to chemotherapy epoetin alfa is a well-tolerated treatment which improves anemia in non pre-transfused patients and appears to reduce transfusion need in those previously transfused.