Most studies of cytogenetic abnormalities in leukemia patients have focused on structural chromosomal rearrangements. Less attention has been paid to the role of single numerical abnormalities in the complex mechanisms of leukemia pathogenesis. We therefore studied 11 cases of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) with trisomy 21 as the sole chromosomal abnormality, representing 1.8% of 601 completely banded cases of ALL seen during a 10-year period. Bone marrow cells from all but one of these cases also had normal karyotypes, representing 8 to 77% of the completely analyzed metaphases. Each of the five cases tested lacked evidence of trisomy 21 mosaicism of constitutional origin in peripheral blood samples. The presenting features of these five girls and six boys were heterogeneous but tended to reflect lower-risk ALL: median age, 3.3 years (range 1-18 years), median leukocyte count, 11.6 x 10(9)/l (range 1.8-82 x 10(9)/l), white race, and a B-cell precursor immunophenotype. Complete remissions were readily induced in all 11 patients. With follow-up ranging from 1+ months to 6.4+ years, the only relapses have been extramedullary (testis and central nervous system) in two patients, both of whom have since achieved second remissions of greater than 76 and greater than 65 months. Trisomy 21 as the sole chromosomal abnormality in childhood ALL appears related to favorable presenting risk features and may represent a good prognosis subset within the group of patients with 47-50 chromosomes.