The BCL-2 proto-oncogene encodes a mitochondrial protein that blocks programmed cell death. High amounts of bcl-2 protein are found not only in lymphoid malignancies, but also in normal tissues characterized by apoptotic cell death, including bone marrow. Using a monoclonal antibody to bcl-2 protein, we analyzed 82 samples of newly diagnosed acute myeloid leukemia. The number of bcl-2+ cells in each sample was heterogeneous (range, 0% to 95%), with a mean of 23%. The percentage of bcl-2+ cells was higher in M4 and M5 types, according to French- American-British classification, and in cases with high white blood cell counts. bcl-2 expression was also correlated with that of the stem cell marker CD34. In vitro survival of leukemic cells maintained in liquid culture in the absence of growth factors was significantly longer in cases with a high percentage of bcl-2+ cells. High expression of bcl-2 was associated with a low complete remission rate after intensive chemotherapy (29% in cases with 20% or more positive cells v 85% in cases with less than 20% positive cells, P < 10(-5)) and with a significantly shorter survival. In multivariate analysis, the percentage of bcl-2+ cells (or the blast survival in culture), age, and the percentage of CD34+ cells were independently associated with poor survival.