Retroviral-mediated cytokine gene transfer into tumor cells is a highly effective way of inducing tumor inhibition and immunity. We analyzed the tumorigenicity of C-26 murine colon carcinoma cells transduced with genes encoding the two subunits of murine interleukin-12 (IL-12) in a polycistronic retroviral vector and selected for resistance to G418 and for IL-12 production (30-80 pg/ml). BALB/c mice injected s.c., i.v. and intrasplenically with C-26/IL-12 cells from three different IL-12-producing clones showed delayed tumor onset as compared with mice injected with control NeoR-transduced or parental tumor cells. Although C-26/IL-12 tumor-bearing mice eventually died of lung metastasis, their survival time was twice as long as that of mice injected with control cells. In experiments with mice selectively depleted of natural killer (NK) cells before tumor cell injection, the time of tumor onset and survival of mice injected with C-26/IL-12 s.c. and i.v., respectively, was reduced. CD8+ T cell depletion had no effect on latency or survival, whereas removal of CD4+ T cells led to C-26/IL-12 tumor regression in about 40% of mice. Histological and immunocytochemical characterization of leukocytes infiltrating C-26/IL-12 tumors showed only slight infiltration with few T cells in non-depleted mice but abundant infiltration by CD8+ T cells and asialo-GM1+ NK cells in tumors of mice depleted of CD4+ T cells. The lack of CD8+ T cell infiltration is not due to a CD4-mediated suppression of their activation because irradiated C-26/IL-12 cells primed for the induction of a strong cytotoxic T lymphocyte response against C-26 parental cells and induced CD8+ effector cells that protected against C-26/IL-12 in a Winn assay. Rather, the results suggest that, although C-26/IL-12 cells injected in vivo stimulate both NK and CD8+ T cells, tumor infiltration by the latter is inhibited by CD4+ T cells.