Fifty patients with acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) have been treated with all-trans retinoic acid (RA). In vitro induced differentiation of primarily cultured bone marrow cells from the patients, colony-forming unit granulocyte-macrophage (CFU-GM) and L-CFU colony-forming assays, and karyotype analysis were performed over the treatment course. The very high bone marrow complete remission (CR) rate (94%) suggested that all-trans RA was superior to conventional chemotherapeutic regimens for the treatment of APL. The leukemic clone was reduced by RA-induced terminal differentiation and loss of proliferation capacity of leukemic cells. Relapse after CR in about 40% of patients was the major reason for the failure of the RA treatment. Patients who relapsed after a chemotherapy-maintained CR could be effectively reinduced to second CR by RA. However, if relapse occurred after a CR maintained by both RA and chemotherapy, the sensitivity of newly emerged leukemic clones to RA was greatly reduced. Therefore, it is suggested that RA should be replaced by conventional chemotherapy as soon as CR is achieved. Laboratory studies proved valuable in selecting cases for RA therapy and in predicting therapeutic effects and prognosis.