A pilot study was conducted of the biological characteristics of the leukemia cells of newly diagnosed patients with poor prognosis acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). This study included measurements of the pretherapy proliferative rate of the leukemia cells in vivo, assessment of differentiation in vivo during remission induction therapy, and the level of expression of the fms, myc, and IL1 beta genes in pretherapy leukemia cells. Short cell cycle times were characteristic of the best prognostic category and were associated with a rapid reduction in marrow leukemia cells in cytosine arabinoside (araC)-sensitive patients. Expression of c-fms was associated with rapid reduction in marrow leukemia cells during araC therapy and with a successful treatment outcome. Expression of the IL1 beta gene was associated with short remissions. These studies suggest that when compared to newly diagnosed standard prognosis AML, the leukemia of poor prognosis patients is more likely to exhibit long cell cycle times, low levels of fms expression, and is less likely to be associated with myeloid differentiation during remission induction therapy.