We have shown that metastasis is suppressed by low-dose total-body irradiation (TBI) in tumor-bearing rats. We have evaluated the immunological effects of low-dose TBI. Total-body irradiation with 0.2 Gy was given 14 days after the implantation of 5 x 10(5) allogenic hepatoma cells (KDH-8) which produce transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta). On day 21, the splenocytes and tumor-tissue infiltrating lymphocytes were analyzed by FACScan and RT-PCR for the mRNA of the genes that encode tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), interferon gamma (IFN-gamma), TGF-beta, interleukin (IL)-4, IL-10 and IL-6. The same procedure was conducted with untreated rats and with rats that underwent local irradiation with 0.2 Gy. The low-dose TBI significantly decreased the incidence of lung and lymph node metastasis (P < 0.01), whereas the same dose of local irradiation had no effect on the incidence of metastasis. The proportion of CD8+ cells in splenocytes increased in the low-dose TBI group (P < 0.01) compared to the locally irradiated and the untreated groups. The tumor-tissue infiltrating lymphocytes were also significantly increased after low-dose TBI (P < 0.01). The FACScan analysis revealed that 72% of the tumor-tissue infiltrating lymphocytes were CD8+. In both spleen and tumor tissue after low-dose TBI, mRNA expression of the genes that encode IFN-gamma and TNF-alpha increased, while that of the Tgfb gene decreased. There was no expression of the mRNAs of the Il4, Il6 and Il10 genes. CD8+ cells and the cytokine network may play an important role in the antitumor effect of low-dose TBI.