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The CD56 antigen is normally expressed on natural-killer cells but has additionally been shown to be present on a variety of hematologic malignancies, including a subset of acute myelogenous leukemia (AMD. There is disagreement, however, about its prognostic significance and its association with specific cytogenetic abnormalities.All clinical samples from June 1994, through September 1995, with increased myeloblasts were analyzed by multiparameter flow cytometry for anomalous expression of CD56. Patients with CD56+ blast cells were selected, and morphologic review was performed. Clinical information was obtained, and cytogenetic data were reviewed. Southern blot analysis to detect rearrangement of the mixed lineage leukemia (MLL) gene was performed when possible.The samples from 23 of 114 patients studied demonstrated anomalous expression of CD56 on myeloblasts, including patients with AML, myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), and chronic myelogenous leukemia in blast crisis. The samples from 10 of 15 patients with CD56+ AML demonstrated at least partial monocytic differentiation. Dysplastic features were displayed in the samples of 12 patients. Correlation with specific cytogenetic abnormalities was not found. The MLL gene was rearranged in five of 18 patients. Seventeen patients have died, with a median survival of 4.6 months for patients with AML. Three have sustained a complete remission. One has findings of high-grade myelodysplastic syndrome. Two were unavailable for follow-up.Expression of CD56 was found in 20% of patients with increased myeloblasts, including patients with high-grade MDS, chronic myelogenous leukemia in blast crisis, and AML. This phenotype was associated with dysplasia, monocytic differentiation, and rearrangement of the MLL gene.