BACKGROUND: Local tumour destruction has been shown to give rise to changes in immunocompetent cells. The aim of this study was to describe the effect of interstitial laser thermotherapy (ILT) of breast carcinoma in the tumour and in regional lymph nodes. METHODS: Seventeen women that underwent radical surgical excision after non-radical ILT were studied. ILT was performed at a steady-state temperature of 48°C for 30 min. Surgical excision was performed 12 (6-23) days after ILT. Six patients with breast cancer not treated with ILT before surgery served as controls. Immunohistological reactions were performed on core needle biopsies prior to treatment and on the excised specimens. RESULTS: ILT resulted in more CD8 lymphocytes and CD68 macrophages within the tumour (P < 0.05 and P < 0.01, respectively) and higher counts of CD20 (P < 0.05), CD68 (P < 0.001) and CD83 (P < 0.01) at the tumour border, when compared to pre-treatment values. In the control patients not receiving ILT, CD8 cells increased within the tumour after resection (P < 0.05). With the probable exception of CD25 Foxp3 cells, the presence of cancer in a lymph node influenced the findings in lymph nodes (examined for CD1a, CD25, Foxp3 CD25, CD83 cells). Thus, comparisons between ILT and control patients were restricted to patients without lymph node metastases. In these patients, ILT and resection were followed by a decrease in CD25 Foxp3 lymphocytes (P < 0.05), when compared to surgical resection alone. CONCLUSIONS: ILT induced changes in immunocompetent cells in patients with breast cancer. The stimulation of the immune system is an added feature of ILT in treatment of patients with breast cancer.