Using the murine colon adenocarcinoma C-26 cell line, engineered to release granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF) (C-26/G-CSF), were studied the mechanisms responsible for inhibition of tumor take in syngeneic animals and of regression of an established tumor in sublethally irradiated mice injected with these cells. Immunocytochemistry and in situ hybridization, performed to characterize tumor-infiltrating leukocytes and their cytokine expression, respectively, indicated that polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMN) were the major cells responsible for inhibition of tumor take and that they expressed mRNA for interleukin 1 alpha (IL-1 alpha), IL-1 beta, and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha). Expression of interferon gamma (IFN-gamma) and of IL-4 was undetectable, consistent with the absence of T lymphocytes at the site of tumor injection. In mice injected with C-26/G-CSF cells after 600-rad irradiation, the tumors grew to approximately 1.5 cm in 30 d, regressing completely thereafter in 70-80% of mice. During the growing phase, tumors were infiltrated first by PMN (between days 15 and 20), then by macrophages, and last by T lymphocytes. Both CD4+ and CD8+ T cells were present but only CD8 depletion significantly abrogated tumor regression. Depletion of PMN by the RB6-8C5 antigranulocytes monoclonal antibody reduced the number of T cells infiltrating the tumor and prevented tumor regression. In situ hybridization performed at the beginning of tumor regression revealed the presence of mRNA for IL-1 alpha, IL-1 beta, and TNF-alpha, but also the presence of cells, with lymphoid morphology, expressing IFN-gamma. Tumors from mice treated with recombinant IFN-gamma (between days 20 and 35) were rejected faster, whereas mice treated with antibodies to IFN-gamma (from day 20) died of progressive tumor. Cyclosporin A treatment (started at day 20) also abrogated tumor regression. These results indicate that inhibition of tumor take and regression in this model occurs through different mechanisms that involve PMN and PMN-T cell interactions, respectively, as well as a combination of cytokines that, for tumor regression, require IFN-gamma. Thus, gene transfer of a single cytokine gene such as G-CSF into tumor cells appears to be sufficient to trigger the cascade of cell interactions and cytokine production necessary to destroy a cancer nodule.