Tumor burden in adult patients with acute leukemia is assessed using the percentage of blast cells in the bone marrow or blood. It is clear, however, that not all blast cells are leukemic cells, especially during rapid marrow regeneration. Similarly, some leukemia cell lines have been shown to differentiate in vitro, and the same process also occurs in vivo. Therefore, the leukemic burden may be due to more differentiated cells as well as to blast cells. The purpose of this study was to investigate whether the human malignancy-associated nucleolar antigen (HMNA) could be used as a marker for leukemic cells and to examine its potential as a diagnostic tool. The proportion of HMNA-positive cells in the bone marrow of patients with acute leukemia was determined by indirect immunofluorescence with antibodies to HMNA and was compared with the differential counts routinely made in the clinic laboratory. The percentages of HMNA-positive cells among the nucleated cells in the marrow of 72 patients with clinical evidence of leukemia were significantly higher (range 9%-98%, median 83%) than those observed for nonleukemic individuals (range less than 0.05%-2.5%, median 1%) or for fractions of marrow cells from normal volunteers enriched for normal early progenitor cells (less than or equal to 2%). Patients with leukemia in remission had a lower percentage of HMNA- positive cells (range 0%-83%, median 3%). The percentage of HMNA- positive cells increased as patients approached relapse. Although the percentage of HMNA-positive cells was related to the percentage of blast cells in the bone marrow of the patients with leukemia, some partially differentiated cells were also HMNA-positive in some specimens, and some blastic cells were HMNA-negative in other specimens. These studies indicate the potential usefulness of HMNA as a marker for leukemic cells.