Childhood acute myeloid leukemia (AML) has a poor prognosis with standard chemotherapy. Allogeneic bone marrow transplantation (BMT) in remission improves the outlook only for the one third of patients with sibling donors. Autologous BMT with a lower morbidity and mortality is available to all. In this study, maximum cytoreduction was achieved by intensive early chemotherapy. Final intensification, with autologous BMT was offered to all those remaining in first complete remission (CR). Patients received two induction and two consolidation courses of intensively scheduled chemotherapy. Cytoreduction was assessed on day 14 and remission was assessed after courses 2 and 4. Bone marrow was harvested after recovery from the second consolidation course or after the first maintenance course and separated on a discontinuous percoll gradient before cryopreservation. Twenty-eight of 31 consecutively enrolled patients achieved CR. Three relapsed early and, of the 25 eligible, 24 underwent autologous BMT. Twenty-three patients received high-dose melphalan and 1 received busulphan and cyclophosphamide before autologous BMT at a median of 113 days (range, 86 to 301) after initial CR. Trilineage engraftment occurred in all. Neutrophil recovery to greater than 0.5 x 10(9)/L occurred at a median of 46 days (range, 13 to 92) after autologous BMT. Platelet recovery was delayed, with a median time to achieve greater than 20 x 10(9)/L of 42 days (range, 18 to 215). With a minimum follow up of 25 months following autologous BMT only 3 children have relapsed. The 5-year event-free survival rate (EFS) from diagnosis is 68% (95% confidence interval, 46% to 90%). Five- year EFS following autologous BMT is 87% (95% confidence interval, 67% to 100%). Autologous BMT with high-dose melphalan administration after intensive chemotherapy has produced EFS equivalent to allogeneic BMT and is associated with a strikingly low relapse rate. High-dose melphalan appears to be a valuable agent for conditioning therapy in AML.