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CHOP (cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, vincristine and prednisone) is accepted as the best available standard treatment for first-line chemotherapy in aggressive non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL). However, the therapeutic efficacy of CHOP remains unsatisfactory, particularly in high-intermediate risk and high risk patients, and a new strategy is warranted in this patient population. The aim of the present study was to explore a suitable therapeutic-intensified regimen for the treatment of aggressive NHL.Between May 1995 and July 1998, a total of 70 patients with high-intermediate risk or high risk aggressive NHL, according to the International Prognostic Index, were enrolled and randomly assigned to receive either eight cycles of standard CHOP (cyclophosphamide 750 mg/m2, doxorubicin 50 mg/m2, vincristine 1.4 mg/m2 and prednisolone 100 mg for 5 days) every 2 weeks, or six cycles of dose-escalated CHOP (cyclophosphamide 1,500 mg/m2, doxorubicin 70 mg/m2, vincristine 1.4 mg/m2 and prednisolone 100 mg for 5 days) every 3 weeks. Lenograstim (glycosylated rHuG-CSF), at a dose of 2 μg/kg/day s.c., was administered daily from day 3 until day 13 with biweekly CHOP and until day 20 with the dose-escalated CHOP. The primary endpoint was complete response rate.The complete response rate was 60% [21 of 35; 95% confidence interval (CI) 42% to 76%] with biweekly CHOP and 51% (18 of 35; 95% CI 34% to 69%) with dose-escalated CHOP. The major toxicity was grade 4 neutropenia and was more frequent in the dose-escalated CHOP arm (86%) than in the biweekly CHOP arm (50%). Grade 4 thrombocytopenia was also more frequent in the dose-escalated CHOP arm (20%) than the biweekly CHOP arm (3%). Non-hematological toxicities were acceptable in both arms. One treatment-related death (due to cardiac arrhythmia) was observed in a dose-escalated CHOP patient. Progression-free survival at 3 years was 43% (95% CI 27% to 59%) in the biweekly CHOP arm and 31% (95% CI 16% to 47%) in the dose-escalated CHOP arm. Although seven patients were deemed ineligible by central review of the pathological diagnosis, the results for both eligible and all enrolled patients were similar.Similar complete response rates and progression-free survival rates, but lower toxicity, indicated that biweekly CHOP was superior to dose-escalated CHOP in the treatment of aggressive NHL. Based on these results, the Lymphoma Study Group of the Japan Clinical Oncology Group is conducting a randomized phase III study comparing biweekly CHOP with standard CHOP in newly diagnosed patients with advanced-stage aggressive NHL.