The absence of TSH-stimulated radioiodide uptake in differentiated thyroid cancer is associated with a high recurrence rate and reduced survival. We studied regulation of the sodium/iodide symporter gene in human papillary thyroid cancer cell lines (BHP) and primary human thyroid cells. BHP cells expressed very low levels of sodium/iodide symporter mRNA and did not concentrate iodide, but iodide uptake was restored to levels seen in FRTL-5 rat thyroid cells by stable transfection of a sodium/iodide symporter cDNA. Sodium/iodide symporter gene expression, therefore, was necessary and sufficient for iodide uptake in BHP cells. We cloned the human sodium/iodide symporter gene 5'-flanking region and analyzed progressive 5'-deletions in transient transfections. We identified a region, -596 to -268, essential to confer full promoter activity in primary normal human thyroid cells. Sodium/iodide symporter promoter activity in four BHP cell lines, however, was markedly reduced, consistent with down-regulation of the endogenous sodium/iodide symporter gene. Nuclear extracts from BHP 2-7 cells had reduced or absent binding to regions of the sodium/iodide symporter promoter shown to be critical for expression, compared with nuclear extracts from FRTL-5 cells. Competition studies indicated that these nuclear proteins were not known thyroid transcription factors. Modifications of the sodium/iodide symporter promoter with demethylation or histone acetylation did not increase sodium/iodide symporter expression, and no deletions of the critical regulatory region were identified in the endogenous gene in BHP cells. Regulation of the sodium/iodide symporter 5'-flanking region in transient transfection paralleled endogenous sodium/iodide symporter expression. Reduced expression of potential novel nuclear factor(s) in these cell lines may contribute to reduced sodium/iodide symporter expression resulting in absence of iodide uptake in some papillary thyroid cancers.