Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) of bcl-2 provides an extremely sensitive method to detect minimal disease in approximately 50% of patients with non-Hodgkin's lymphomas (NHL). In an attempt to determine the clinical usefulness of this technique, we examined the bone marrow (BM) of 152 patients with advanced-stage NHL at the time of evaluation and after induction or salvage chemotherapy before autologous BM transplantation. The BM proved to be an accessible and reproducible tissue source to determine PCR positivity because all of the 102 patients examined had the same PCR-amplifiable breakpoint in their BM and lymph node. At the time of evaluation, PCR analysis in advanced- stage NHL patients added little additional information to morphologic analysis because each technique identified BM infiltration in approximately 70% of patients. PCR was significantly more useful in determining BM infiltration after induction or salvage therapy. At that time, approximately 50% of patients had morphologically normal BM, whereas PCR analysis remained positive in 100% of those with an amplifiable breakpoint. These observations were confirmed in a clinical trial attempting to induce remission in previously untreated low-grade advanced-stage NHL patients. In this series, PCR was positive in all patients after treatment although the BM was histologically uninvolved in 50% of cases, showing that conventional therapy did not eradicate bcl-2-positive cells.