In this phase I/II study, 9 patients with myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) were treated with interleukin-3 (IL-3) followed by granulocyte- macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF). Each treatment cycle was 28 days long and administered as follows: 1 microgram/kg/d IL-3 on days 1 through 7 and 3 micrograms/kg/d GM-CSF for days 8 through 21, followed by a 7-day rest period. IL-3 dose escalations were planned, but the dose of GM-CSF was fixed. Three patients had refractory anemia, 4 had refractory anemia with ringed sideroblasts, and 2 had refractory anemia with excess blasts. Six patients were dependent on red blood cell transfusions, 1 on platelet transfusions, and 2 on both. The absolute neutrophil count improved in 7 (77%) patients and the platelet count improved in 3 (33%) patients during therapy. Hemoglobin levels were unchanged. A clinically relevant response was seen in only 1 patient with thrombocytopenia, and he received five cycles of therapy. The neutrophil count decreased in 2 patients and the platelet count decreased in 4 patients during treatment. The toxicity of the treatment was significant. In the first cohort of 3 patients, 1 patient developed supraventricular tachycardia and congestive heart failure. In the second group, 1 patient developed progressive granulocytopenia and died of gram-negative septicemia. Because of the disparate toxicity, 3 more patients were treated at the same dose level. One of these experienced a high fever and bone pain requiring hospitalization. Because of these adverse effects, the IL-3 dose was not escalated and all patients received 1 microgram/kg/d for 7 days. We believe that sequential therapy with IL-3 and GM-CSF at these dose levels causes unacceptable toxicity in patients with MDS. The major toxic events occurred during weeks 4 and 5 after starting treatment and may have been primarily caused by GM-CSF therapy. Although neutrophil counts improve in most patients, the effect on red blood cells and platelets is minimal. At present, this form of therapy remains problematic and appears to have a limited potential in the management of MDS.