The clinical utility for establishing the immune phenotype in patients with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is controversial. To help resolve this dilemma, we studied 104 consecutive patients with diffuse large cell lymphoma, the most common subtype of potentially curable non-Hodgkin's lymphomas. The presence or absence of the human class II histocompatibility antigen was determined using the monoclonal antibody anti-HLA-DR (Ia), and the results correlated with pretreatment clinical features and survival. We found that eight HLA-DR negative patients had similar pretreatment clinical characteristics compared with 96 HLA-DR positive patients, but HLA-DR negative patients had a significantly shorter survival duration compared with HLA-DR positive patients (P = 0.003 log-rank). The median survival of the HLA-DR negative patients was 0.5 years compared to 2.8 yr for the HLA-DR positive patients. No HLA-DR negative patient survived beyond 1.5 yr. A multi-variate analysis, adjusting for prognostic factors of known clinical significance, confirmed the importance of HLA-DR as a prognostic factor (P = 0.016). We conclude that determining the presence of HLA-DR is a relatively simple pretreatment study that identifies a small but important group of patients who are not curable using currently available combination chemotherapy.