Tumor-directed gene therapy, such as "suicide gene" therapy, requires high levels of gene expression in a high percentage of tumor cells in vivo to be effective. Current vector strategies have been ineffective in achieving these goals. This report introduces the attenuated (thymidine kinase (TK)-negative) replication-competent vaccinia virus (VV) as a potential vector for tumor-directed gene therapy by studying the biodistribution of VV in animal tumor models. A TK-deleted recombinant VV (Western Reserve strain) expressing luciferase on a synthetic promoter was constructed. Luciferase activity was measured in vitro after transduction of a variety of human and murine tumor cell lines and in vivo after intraperitoneal (i.p.) delivery in C57BL/6 mice with 7-day i.p. tumors (10(6) MC-38 cells). Three other in vivo tumor models were examined for tumor-specific gene expression after intravenous delivery of VV (human melanoma in nude mice, adenocarcinoma liver metastasis in immunocompetent mice, and subcutaneous sarcoma in the rat). In addition, a replication-incompetent vaccinia (1 microg of psoralen and ultraviolet light, 365 nm, 4 minutes) was tested in vitro and in vivo and compared with active virus. Luciferase activity in i.p. tumors at 4 days after i.p. injection of VV was >7000-fold higher than lung, >3000-fold higher than liver, and >250-fold higher than ovary. In addition, intravenous injection of VV resulted in markedly higher tumor luciferase activity compared with any other organ in every model tested (up to 188,000-fold higher than liver and 77,000-fold higher than lung). Inactivation of the virus resulted in negligible gene expression in vivo. In summary, VV has a high transduction efficiency in tumor cells with high levels of gene expression. The results suggest a selective in vivo replication of TK-deleted VV in tumor cells. Replication competent, TK-deleted VV appears to be an ideal vector for testing the in vivo delivery of toxic genes to tumor cells.