Retroviral gene transfer into human myeloid precursor cells allows introduction of marker genes as well as genes conferring resistance to chemotherapeutic drugs. We transduced a human mutant dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR) cDNA into CD34 antigen-positive peripheral blood cells from patients with breast or ovarian cancer obtained after treatment with chemotherapy and granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF). This mutant DHFR has been shown to confer resistance to methotrexate (MTX) in murine bone marrow. We established a transduction protocol that permitted ex vivo expansion and selection of transduced early progenitor cells. The number of progenitor cells from transduced CD34-positive cells increased 50-fold after cytokine prestimulation with interleukin-1 (IL-1), c-kit ligand (KL; stem cell factor), and IL-3 and 2 weeks in liquid culture. Transduced colony-forming unit-granulocyte-macrophage (CFU-GM), assayed directly after the transduction procedure, were protected completely against 2 x 10(-8) mol/L MTX, a concentration that significantly reduced the CFU-GM detected in the control population. Gene transfer of the mutant DHFR led to a twofold selective advantage for a pre-CFU population after exposure to MTX in liquid culture (P < .001). Polybrene, in contrast with protamine, significantly inhibited the expansion of progenitors. The presence of proviral DNA was monitored by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and was detected in greater than 80% of CFU-GM and ex vivo expanded pre-CFU. We have demonstrated that human hematopoietic precursor cells can be expanded extensively after retroviral gene transfer. The same population of early progenitors can be selected ex vivo with low-dose MTX. As long-term expression of transduced genes in human hematopoietic cells remains a problem in vivo, these results may have implications for future clinical trials, especially for the introduction of nonselectable genes.