Chronic progressive multiple sclerosis (MS) is a severely disabling demyelinating disease in which autoimmune processes seem to have a major role. The nucleoside drug cladribine is a potent lympholytic agent with few side-effects. We have studied its efficacy and safety in a randomised double-blind trial. 51 patients (48 entered as matched pairs) received four monthly courses of 0.7 mg/kg cladribine or placebo (saline) given through a surgically implanted central line. Neurologists with no knowledge of which medication the patient was receiving examined the patients monthly and noted two rating scale scores (Kurtzke and Scripps). Cerebrospinal fluid and brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) examinations were done at 6 and 12 months. Average neurological scores, demyelinated volumes on MRI, and concentrations of oligoclonal bands in cerebrospinal fluid were stable or improved in the patients receiving cladrabine but continued to deteriorate in patients on placebo. Mean paired (placebo minus matched cladribine) differences at 12 months relative to baseline were 1.0 (SE 0.4) for the Kurtzke scores, -13.9 (2.3) for the Scripps scores, 4.57 (1.17) mL for demyelinated volumes, and 7.3 (3.3) arbitrary units for concentrations of oligoclonal bands. Cladribine was generally well tolerated and clinically significant toxicity occurred in only 1 patient, in whom severe marrow suppression developed with complete recovery after several months. 1 patient died of newly acquired hepatitis B, an event unlikely to be related to cladribine. We conclude that the immunosuppressive drug cladribine influences favourably the course of chronic progressive MS.