The application of dendritic cells (DC) to the active immunotherapy of cancer currently relies on the generation of potent DC capable of presenting tumor antigens such as carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA). It is unknown whether the T cells of patients with advanced malignancies can be reliably stimulated against tumor antigens by their autologous DC. In this study, starting with the peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) of patients with metastatic malignancies expressing CEA, autologous DCs were generated in vitro in serum-free media supplemented with GM-CSF and IL-4. The DCs from HLA A2 positive patients were loaded with the CEA peptide CAP-1 and the DCs from HLA A2 negative patients were depleted of bystander lymphocytes and loaded with mRNA encoding CEA. The DC preparations were tested to determine their phenotype and were used to stimulate autologous PBMC twice, separated by 10-14 days. The stimulated cells were then tested for their ability to lyse CEA-expressing target cells. We successfully generated an adequate number of DC for a clinical trial from all patients. The harvested DC preparations contained 49% DC and 87% DC if depleted of bystander lymphocytes. Phenotypic analysis showed the typical pattern of CD11c+ CD40+ CD86+ HLA-DR+ CD80(low) CD83(low) CD14(low). All preparations but one were able to stimulate CEA-specific cytotoxic T-lymphocyte (CTL) activity, suggesting that the majority of patients are not anergic to CEA and possess functional DC. The CTL activity was similar for the CEA peptide and CEA RNA-loaded DC.