Intensive chemotherapy produces a lower complete remission (CR) rate in the myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) than in de novo acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), possibly due in part to a higher incidence of P glycoprotein (PGP) expression in MDS blast cells. We designed a randomized trial of intensive chemotherapy with or without quinine, an agent capable of reverting the multidrug resistance (mdr) phenotype, in patients aged < or = 65 years with high-risk MDS. Patients were randomized to receive mitoxantrone 12 mg/m2/d days 2-5 + AraC 1 g/m2/12 h days 1-5, with (Q+) or without (Q-) quinine (30 mg/kg/d). 131 patients were included. PGP expression analysis was successful in 91 patients. In the 42 PGP-positive cases, 13/25 (52%) patients in the Q+ group achieved CR, compared to 3/17 (18%) patients in the Q- group (P = 0.02) and median Kaplan-Meier survival was 13 months in the Q+ group, and 8 months in the Q- group (P = 0.01). No life-threatening toxicity was observed with quinine. In conclusion, the results of this randomized study show that quinine increases the CR rate and survival in PGP-positive MDS cases treated with intensive chemotherapy.