In a phase I/II study, 11 patients with myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) and severe transfusion-dependent cytopenia were treated with recombinant human granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (rhGM-CSF) to investigate the effects of rhGM-CSF on normal hematopoiesis and leukemic cells. The treatment schedule included dose escalation from 15 micrograms/m2 to 150 micrograms/m2 administered by continuous intravenous (IV) infusion for seven to 14 days and was repeated after a two-week treatment-free interval. The blood leukocyte counts increased dose dependently by 130% to 1,800% in ten patients; a rise of monocytes and eosinophils occurred in seven and six patients, respectively. No sustained increase in reticulocytes or platelets was observed. Lymphocyte counts increased in all patients affecting both T- helper and T-suppressor cells; however, the lymphocytes were not activated as analyzed by the expression of the interleukin-2 receptor. In four of the patients, all with greater than 14% blast cells in the bone marrow, the percentage of bone marrow blast cells increased during treatment with rhGM-CSF. Cytogenetic data indicated induction of both proliferation and differentiation of the leukemic clones by rhGM-CSF. Toxic side effects were minor with slight fever, phlebitis at the infusion site, and bone pain in the minority of patients. In conclusion, rhGM-CSF effectively stimulates hematopoiesis in vivo in patients with myelodysplastic syndromes. However, as the leukemic cell population can be stimulated in patients with a higher initial blast cell count, the combination of rhGM-CSF with other differentiation- inducing or cytotoxic agents has to be considered.