Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) is thought to be methotrexate (MTX)-resistant. However, a small study suggested that acute monocytic leukemia (AML-M5) is sensitive to MTX. We measured MTX accumulation/polyglutamylation in 20 AML-nonM5, 37 AML-M5 and 83 common/preB-acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (c/preB-ALL) samples. Membrane transport was determined in 11 childhood AMLs (including 3 AML-M5) and in 25 c/preB-ALL samples. MTX sensitivity was determined in 23 AML-nonM5, 15 AML-M5 and 63 common/preB-ALL samples using the thymidylate synthase (TS) inhibition assay. MTX transport was higher in AML samples compared with c/preB-ALL precluding a transport defect in AML. Accumulation of long-chain polyglutamates MTX-Glu(4-6) was 3-fold lower for AML-nonM5 compared with c/preB-ALL cells (median 268 versus 889 pmol MTX-Glu(4-6)/10(9) cells; P < or = 0.001); for AML-M5 samples, median accumulation of MTX-Glu(4-6) was 0 pmol/10(9) cells (P < or = 0.001). After short-term MTX exposure, AML-nonM5 was 6-fold more resistant to MTX compared with c/preB-ALL cells (2.16 versus 0.39 microM; P < 0.001), while AML-M5 was 2-fold more resistant (P = 0.02). In both AML-nonM5 and AML-M5 cells, MTX resistance was circumvented by continuous MTX exposure (median TSI(50) values: 0.052 and 0.041 microM, respectively) compared with a c/preB-ALL value of 0.066 microM. In conclusion, AML-M5 is relatively sensitive to MTX compared with other AML-subtypes even though polyglutamylation of MTX is poor. Using continuous exposure, AML-nonM5 and AML-M5 cells were at least as sensitive to MTX as c/preB-ALL cells. This report suggests that MTX might be an overlooked drug in the treatment of childhood AML.