BACKGROUND: Improvement in outcome of childhood high-risk (HR) ALL was sought with a very intensive Nordic protocol leaving most patients without CNS-RT. METHODS: A total of 426 consecutive children entered the NOPHO-92 HR-ALL program. HR criteria included WBC > or =50 x 10(9)/L, CNS or testicular involvement, T-cell, lymphomatous features, t(9;22), t(4;11), or slow response. Of these, 152 children had very high risk (VHR) with special definitions. CNS consolidation was based on high-dose MTX (8 g/m2) and ARA-C (12 g/m2) alternating. VHR patients also received cranial RT. RESULTS: The 9-year EFS was 61 +/- 3%, OS 74 +/- 2%, and EFS for T-ALL 62 +/- 4%. Cumulative incidence of isolated CNS relapse was 4.7 +/- 1%, and CNS relapse in total 9.9 +/- 2%. Poor prognostic factors were WBC > or =200 x 10(9)/L and a very slow response. CONCLUSIONS: HR-ALL was successfully treated on the NOPHO-92 regimen, with a relatively low CNS relapse rate for non-irradiated children. WBC > or =200 x 10(9)/L and very slow response emerged as strong poor prognostic factors.