Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) is a homogeneous subgroup of acute myeloid leukemias (AMLs) characterized by the presence of the t(15,17) translocation and the resulting promyelocytic myeloid leukemia/retinoic acid receptor alpha (PML/RAR alpha) fusion proteins. To date APL is the only AML that is sufficiently sensitive to all-trans retinoic acid's (ATRA) differentiating effect. In vivo ATRA alone achieves complete remission in most APL patients. However, failure or partial responses are observed and the molecular basis of the absence of ATRA response in these patients has not been determined. To gain insights in the cell growth and differentiation of APL cells, expression of hematopoietic growth factors (HGF) shown to be produced by leukemic cells (interleukin-1 beta [IL-1 beta], IL-6, tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF alpha), granulocyte colony-stimulating factor [G-CSF], granulocyte- macrophage colony-stimulating factor [GM-CSF], and IL-3) was studied in 16 APL samples. Twelve APL cases expressed IL-1 beta, IL-6, and TNF alpha, but not G-CSF, GM-CSF, and IL-3. These cases achieved complete remission with ATRA therapy. The four remaining patients (either TNF alpha negative or G-CSF, GM-CSF or IL-3 positive) did not achieve complete remission with ATRA. In all cases, in vivo response to ATRA therapy was correlated to the in vitro differentiation effect of all- trans retinoic acid 10(-6) mol/L. Thus, ATRA differentiation induction was strongly correlated to the HGF expression (P < .0001). These results suggest that the presence or absence of HGF's expression by APL cells may contribute to the therapeutic effect of ATRA in this disease.