Fludarabine is an effective treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia that does not respond to initial treatment with chlorambucil. We compared the efficacy of fludarabine with that of chlorambucil in the primary treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Between 1990 and 1994, we randomly assigned 509 previously untreated patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia to one of the following treatments: fludarabine (25 mg per square meter of body-surface area, administered intravenously daily for 5 days every 28 days), chlorambucil (40 mg per square meter, given orally every 28 days), or fludarabine (20 mg per square meter per day for 5 days every 28 days) plus chlorambucil (20 mg per square meter every 28 days). Patients with an additional response at each monthly evaluation continued to receive the assigned treatment for a maximum of 12 cycles. Assignment of patients to the fludarabine-plus-chlorambucil group was stopped when a planned interim analysis revealed excessive toxicity and a response rate that was not better than the rate with fludarabine alone. Among the other two groups, the response rate was significantly higher for fludarabine alone than for chlorambucil alone. Among 170 patients treated with fludarabine, 20 percent had a complete remission, and 43 percent had a partial remission. The corresponding values for 181 patients treated with chlorambucil were 4 percent and 33 percent (P< 0.001 for both comparisons). The median duration of remission and the median progression-free survival in the fludarabine group were 25 months and 20 months, respectively, whereas both values were 14 months in the chlorambucil group (P<0.001 for both comparisons). The median overall survival among patients treated with fludarabine was 66 months, which was not significantly different from the overall survival in the other two groups (56 months with chlorambucil and 55 months with combined treatment). Severe infections and neutropenia were more frequent with fludarabine than with chlorambucil (P=0.08), although, overall, toxic effects were tolerable with the two single-drug regimens. When used as the initial treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia, fludarabine yields higher response rates and a longer duration of remission and progression-free survival than chlorambucil.