Thymidine phosphorylase (TP) is an essential enzyme for the biochemical activation of 5-fluorouracil (5-FU). Interferon upregulates TP in vivo, although the dose and schedule of interferon for optimal biomodulation of 5-FU is not known. In this study, TP activity was measured in peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBLs) from patients with advanced carcinoma receiving treatment with 5-FU and folinic acid. Cohorts of patients were treated with interferon alpha (IFNalpha), immediately prior to 5-FU/folinic acid, at doses of 3 MIU m(-2), 9 MIU m(-2) and 18 MIUm(-2). IFNalpha was administered on day 0 cycle two, day-1 and day 0 cycle three and day-2, day-1 and day 0 cycle four. A fourth cohort was treated with IFNalpha 9 MIU m(-2) three times per week from cycle 2 onwards. Twenty-one patients were entered into the study with 19 evaluable for response. Six patients (32%) had stable disease and 13 (68%) progressive disease. There were no grade-IV toxicities. TP activity was detected in PBLs from all patients with wide interpatient variability in constitutive TP activity prior to chemotherapy, and in response to IFNalpha. 5-FU/folinic acid alone did not induce TP activity but a single dose of IFNalpha led to upregulation of TP within 2 h of administration with a further increase by 24 h (signed rank test, P = 0.006). TP activity remained elevated for at least 13 days (signed rank test, P= 0.02). There were no significant differences in TP activity between schedules or with additional doses of IFNalpha. A single dose of IFNalpha as low as 3 MIU m(-2) can cause sustained elevation of PBL TP activity in vivo indicating that biochemical markers are important pharmacodynamic endpoints for developing optimal schedules of IFNalpha for biomodulation of 5-FU.