The risk of development of CNS leukemia was investigated in 153 adults with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) who received systemic combination chemotherapy without CNS prophylaxis. Overall, 31 patients (20%) developed CNS leukemia after a median of 6 months of therapy; the estimated 1-year incidence of CNS leukemia was 21% (SE, 3.9%). Characteristics significantly associated with CNS involvement included the presence of elevated hemoglobin creatinine, alkaline phosphatase, fibrinogen, and lactic dehydrogenase levels; B-cell leukemia; and high leukemic cell proliferative activity. Multivariate analysis identified lactic dehydrogenase levels of greater than or equal to 600 U/L and greater than or equal to 14% of cells in the S + G2M compartment to have independent additive poor prognostic significance. Patients were categorized into different risk groups for CNS leukemia with 1-year incidences ranging from 4% to 55%. While related to a high occurrence of CNS leukemia at diagnosis (33%) and subsequently (100%), the low incidence of B-cell disease excluded it from the multivariate analysis. The use of systemic chemotherapy containing multiple agents with good CNS penetration and in high doses (VAD regimen) in 90 patients was associated with a trend for lower CNS leukemia at 1 year (15% v 31%), especially in the low-risk category. We propose to develop future therapies for adults with ALL that include risk-oriented CNS prophylactic approaches.