Although sustained production of committed human hematopoietic progenitor cells in long-term bone marrow cultures (LTBMC) is well documented, evidence for the generation and expansion of human primitive hematopoietic progenitor cells (PHPC) in such cultures is lacking. For that purpose, we attempted to determine if the human high proliferative potential colony-forming cell (HPP-CFC), a primitive hematopoietic marrow progenitor cell, is capable of generation and expansion in vitro. To that effect, stromal cell-free LTBMC were initiated with CD34+ HLA-DR-CD15- rhodamine 123dull bone marrow cells and were maintained with repeated addition of c-kit ligand and a synthetic interleukin-3/granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor fusion protein. By day 21 of LTBMC, a greater than twofold increase in the number of assayable HPP-CFC was detected. Furthermore, the production of HPP-CFC in LTBMC continued for up to 4 weeks, resulting in a 5.5-fold increase in HPP-CFC numbers. Weekly phenotypic analyses of cells harvested from LTBMC showed that the number of CD34+ HLA-DR- cells increased from 10(4) on day 0 to 56 CD34+ HLA-DR- cells increased from 10(4) on day 0 to 56 x 10(4) by day 21. To examine further the nature of the in vitro HPP-CFC expansion, individual HPP- CFC colonies were serially cloned. Secondary cloning of individual, day 28 primary HPP-CFC indicated that 46% of these colonies formed an average of nine secondary colony-forming unit--granulocyte-macrophage (CFU-GM)--derived colonies, whereas 43% of primary HPP-CFC gave rise to between one and six secondary HPP-CFC colonies and 6 to 26 CFU-GM. These data show that CD34+ HLA-DR- CD15- rhodamine 123dull cells represent a fraction of human bone marrow highly enriched for HPP-CFC and that based on their regeneration and proliferative capacities, a hierarchy of HPP-CFC exists. Furthermore, these studies indicate that in the presence of appropriate cytokine stimulation, it is possible to expand the number of PHPC in vitro.