One of the distinguishing features of multiple myeloma (MM) is the proliferation of plasma cells that home to the bone marrow (BM). However, there still remains some uncertainty concerning the presence of related malignant cells in the peripheral blood of myeloma patients. Using consensus oligonucleotide primers, we amplified the third complementary determining region (CDR3) of rearranged immunoglobulin heavy chain alleles from MM marrow samples by polymerase chain reaction (PCR). From the sequences of the products, we derived allele-specific oligonucleotides (ASO), and these were used in subsequent amplification reactions to detect malignant clones in the peripheral blood of myeloma patients. This method is highly specific and sensitive to 1 malignant cell in the background of 105 normal cells. Using this method we detected circulating malignant cells in 13 of 14 previously untreated MM patients. Furthermore, by applying ASO-PCR to artificial titrations of initial BM DNA sample into normal peripheral blood lymphocyte (PBL) DNA we were able to generate standard curves and quantitate the amount of tumor in the patient PBL. We observed a wide variation in the amount of circulating tumor between patients. In addition, we found that the incidence of circulating tumor cells was independent of BM tumor burden and stage of disease. The detection and quantitation of circulating tumor cells in the PBL of MM patients may offer an alternative assessment of the disease and may be an important consideration in the use of peripheral stem cells in bone marrow transplantation.