We have developed a competitive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) titration assay that estimates the number of BCR-ABL transcripts in chronic myeloid leukemia patients to monitor minimal residual disease after bone marrow transplantation (BMT). The assay gave reproducible results and allowed differences in BCR-ABL message levels of half an order of magnitude to be distinguished. Of 91 patients studied by nonquantitative PCR, 28 who had a positive PCR result on at least one occasion posttransplant were analyzed by competitive PCR. Seventeen patients had no evidence in their marrow of cytogenetic relapse during the period of observation; BCR-ABL transcript numbers in these cases ranged from approximately 10 to 800/micrograms RNA. Ten of the 11 patients who relapsed cytogenetically were studied when Philadelphia- positive metaphases were first detected in their marrow; transcript numbers ranged from 1,600 to 7 x 10(5)/micrograms RNA. Patients in hematologic relapse had between 9 x 10(4) and 10(6) BCR-ABL transcripts/micrograms RNA. Patients who progressed from cytogenetic remission to cytogenetic relapse and then to hematologic relapse had increasing numbers of BCR-ABL transcripts in their blood. Three patients had clear evidence of rising numbers of BCR-ABL transcripts before routine detection of cytogenetic relapse. Conversely patients without cytogenetic relapse generally had low or falling numbers of transcripts. We conclude that serial monitoring of residual disease post-BMT by estimating the number of BCR-ABL transcripts provides more information than conventional cytogenetics or nonquantitative PCR and may identify patients in need of therapeutic intervention before the onset of overt relapse.