For patients with local recurrence of prostate cancer after definitive irradiation therapy there is no treatment widely considered safe and effective. After extensive preclinical testing of prodrug gene therapy in vitro and in vivo, we conducted a phase I dose escalation clinical trial of intraprostatic injection of a replication-deficient adenovirus (ADV) containing the herpes simplex virus thymidine kinase gene (HSV-tk) injected directly into the prostate, followed by intravenous administration of the prodrug ganciclovir (GCV). Our goal was to determine safe dose levels of the vector for future trials of efficacy. Patients with a rising serum prostate-specific antigen (PSA) level and biopsy confirmation of local recurrence of prostate cancer without evidence of metastases one or more years after definitive irradiation therapy were eligible for the trial. After giving informed consent, patients received injections of increasing concentrations of ADV/HSA-tk in 1 ml into the prostate under ultrasound guidance. Ganciclovir was then given intravenously for 14 days (5 mg/kg every 12 hr). Patients were monitored closely for evidence of toxicity and for response to therapy. Eighteen patients were treated at 4 escalating doses: group 1 (n = 4) received 1 x 10(8) infectious units (IU); group 2 (n = 5) received 1 x 10(9) IU; group 3 (n = 4) received 1 x 10(10) IU; group 4 (n = 5) received 1 x 10(11) IU. Vector was detected by PCR of urine samples after treatment, increasing in frequency and duration (up to 32 days) as the dose increased. All cultures of blood and urine specimens were negative for growth of adenovirus. Minimal toxicity (grade 1-2) was encountered in four patients. One patient at the highest dose level developed spontaneously reversible grade 4 thrombocytopenia and grade 3 hepatotoxicity. Three patients achieved an objective response, one each at the three highest dose levels, documented by a fall in serum PSA levels by 50% or more, sustained for 6 weeks to 1 year. This study is the first to demonstrate the safety of ADV/HSV-tk plus GCV gene therapy in human prostate cancer and the first to demonstrate anticancer activity of gene therapy in patients with prostate cancer. Further trials are underway to identify the optimal distribution of vector within the prostate and to explore the safety of repeat courses of gene therapy.