Sixty-seven patients with newly diagnosed acute nonlymphocytic leukemia (ANLL) who were considered to be poor candidates for treatment with cytosine arabinoside (ara-C)/anthracycline antibiotic therapy were treated with high-dose ara-C (HDara-C) remission induction therapy. Thirty-four of the 67 patients had a hematologic disorder before developing acute leukemia or had a history of exposure to marrow toxins, 23 patients were greater than 70 years old, and 10 patients had medical problems that were felt to be a contraindication to therapy with an anthracycline antibiotic. Forty-two percent of patients entered complete remission (CR), whereas 22% failed to enter remission because of persistent leukemia. Treatment was associated with substantial toxicity varying from nausea and vomiting to irreversible cerebellar toxicity. Thirty-four percent of patients died during therapy. Poor performance status, a low serum albumin, and a low platelet count were associated with death during remission induction therapy, whereas a high pretherapy leukemic cell mass and a large number of residual leukemic cells in the marrow after six days of therapy were associated with treatment failure due to persistent leukemia.