Many epidemiological studies have shown an association between diets rich in carotenoids and a reduced incidence of many forms of cancer, and it has been suggested that the antioxidant properties of these compounds are a causative factor. Attention has focused on the potential role of one specific carotenoid, beta-carotene, in preventing cancer, and numerous publications have described in vitro experiments and animal studies which suggest that not only can this carotenoid protect against the development of cancer, but also several other chronic diseases. Since the immune system plays a major role in cancer prevention, it has been suggested that beta-carotene may enhance immune cell function. Several human trials, using dietary beta-carotene supplementation with a wide range of intakes, have been undertaken to address this hypothesis. The general conclusion of these studies is that this compound can enhance cell-mediated immune responses, particularly in the elderly. The present article will review some of these human studies and, hopefully, complement the reviews of other authors associated with the present symposium, some of whom will also describe work in this area. Potential mechanisms for the effects of carotenoids on immune function will also be reviewed. Finally, possible reasons for the failure of three major prospective studies to demonstrate a beneficial effect of beta-carotene supplementation on lung cancer risk will be discussed.