To investigate the relationship of bcr-abl fusion mRNAs with childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemias (ALL), we examined 27 pediatric Philadelphia chromosome (Ph1)-positive acute leukemias using a reverse polymerase chain reaction (PCR) procedure. In cells from 24 leukemias, single bcr-abl PCR products were detected that corresponded to breakpoints in the minor breakpoint cluster region (mbcr in intron 1 of the bcr gene) associated with production of the P190 fusion protein. Cells from the three remaining leukemias contained breakpoints in the major breakpoint cluster region (Mbcr) as shown by PCR and Southern blot analyses. These three leukemias also contained low levels of the mbcr PCR product that may have resulted from alternative splicing of the bcr-abl precursor RNA. A screen of 35 additional leukemias from patients who failed therapy before day 180 (induction failures or early relapses) found one case with unsuccessful cytogenetics to express Mbcr- abl RNA. All four children with Mbcr breakpoints had white blood cell levels in excess of 250,000 at presentation (compared with 2 of 24 with mbcr breakpoints) and two had hematologic and clinical features suggestive of chronic myelogenous leukemias (CML) in lymphoid blast crisis. Our results indicate that in Ph1-positive pediatric leukemias, all 9;22 breakpoints occur in one of the two known breakpoint cluster regions in the bcr gene on chromosome 22. The reverse PCR reliably detected all patients with cytogenetic t(9;22) and is capable of detecting additional Ph1-positive leukemias that are missed by standard cytogenetics. Furthermore, the Mbcr-type breakpoint, associated with production of p210, can be seen in childhood leukemias presenting either as clinical ALL or as apparent lymphoid blast crisis of CML, suggesting that t(9;22) breakpoint locations do not exclusively determine the biologic and clinical features of pediatric Ph1-positive ALL.