Chromosome band 11q23 is frequently involved in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) de novo, as well as in myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) and lymphoma. Five percent to 15% of patients treated with chemotherapy for a primary neoplasm develop therapy-related AML (t-AML) that may show rearrangements, usually translocations involving band 11q23 or, less often, 21q22. These leukemias develop after a relatively short latent period and often follow the use of drugs that inhibit the activity of DNA-topoisomerase II (topo II). We previously identified a gene, MLL (myeloid-lymphoid leukemia or mixed-lineage leukemia), at 11q23 that is involved in the de novo leukemias. We have studied 17 patients with t-MDS/t-AML, 12 of whom had cytogenetically detectable 11q23 rearrangements. Ten of the 12 t-AML patients had received topo II inhibitors and 9 of these, all with balanced translocations of 11q23, had MLL rearrangements on Southern blot analysis. None of the patients who had not received topo II inhibitors showed an MLL rearrangement. Of the 5 patients lacking 11q23 rearrangements, some of whom had monoblastic features, none had an MLL rearrangement, although 4 had received topo II inhibitors. Our study indicates that the MLL gene rearrangements are similar both in AML that develops de novo and in t-AML. The association of exposure to topo II- reactive chemotherapy with 11q23 rearrangements involving the MLL gene in t-AML suggests that topo II may play a role in the aberrant recombination events that occur in this region both in AML de novo and in t-AML.