Until recently, the diagnosis and classification of acute myeloid (AML) and acute lymphoblastic (ALL) leukemias was based almost exclusively on well-defined morphologic criteria and cytochemical stains. Although most cases can be diagnosed by these methods, there is only modest correlation between morphologic categories and treatment responsiveness and prognosis. The expansion of therapeutic options and improvement in remission induction and disease-free survival for both AML and ALL have stimulated emphasis on defining good and poor treatment response groups. This is most effectively accomplished by a multifaceted approach to diagnosis and classification using immunophenotyping, cytogenetics, and molecular analysis in addition to the traditional methods. Immunophenotyping is important in characterizing morphologically poorly differentiated acute leukemias and in defining prognostic categories of ALL. Cytogenetic and molecular studies provide important prognostic information and are becoming vitally important in determining the appropriate treatment protocol. With optimal application of these techniques in the diagnosis of acute leukemias, treatment strategies can be more specifically directed and new therapeutic approaches can be evaluated more effectively. (C) 2000 American Association for Clinical Chemistry.