Considerable evidence links urokinase plasminogen activator (uPA) bound to its surface receptor (uPAR) with enhanced invasiveness of cancer cells. By blocking uPAR expression in human epidermoid carcinoma cells (HEp3), we have now identified an additional and novel in vivo function for this receptor by showing that receptor-deficient cells enter a state of dormancy reminiscent of that observed in human cancer metastasis. Its main characteristic is survival without signs of progressive growth. Five clones transfected with a vector expressing uPAR antisense RNA under the beta-actin promoter were isolated and shown to have uPAR (at the mRNA and protein levels) reduced by 50 to 80%; four clones, transfected with vector alone and having uPAR levels similar to those of parental cells, served as controls. In confirmation of our previous results, reduced uPAR always coincided with a significantly reduced invasiveness. Each of the control clones produced rapidly growing, highly metastatic tumors within 2 wk of inoculation on chorioallantoic membranes (CAMs) of chick embryos. In contrast, each of the clones with low surface uPAR, whose proliferation rate in culture was indistinguishable from controls, remained dormant for up to 5 mo when inoculated on CAMs. Thus, the reduction in uPAR altered the phenotype of HEp3 tumor cells from tumorigenic to dormant. Although protracted, tumor dormancy was not permanent since in spite of maintaining low uPAR levels, each of the in vivo-passaged antisense clones eventually reemerged from dormancy to initiate progressive growth and to form metastases at a level of 20 to 90% of that of fully malignant control. This observation suggested that other factors, whose expression is dependent on cumulative and prolonged in vivo effects, can compensate for the lack of a full complement of surface uPAR required for the expression of malignant properties. These "reemerged," uPAR-deficient clones were easily distinguishable from the vector-transfected controls by the fact that after only 1 wk in culture, the invasion of CAM by all five clones and tumorigenicity of four of the five clones were reduced back to the values observed before in vivo maintenance. In contrast, dissociated and in vitro-grown cells of control tumors were fully invasive and produced large, metastatic tumors when reinoculated on CAMs. Quantitation of the percent of apoptotic and S-phase cells in vivo, in the control and uPAR-deficient, dormant clones, showed that the mechanism responsible for the dormancy was a diminished proliferation.