Revealing the mechanisms of neoplastic disease and enhancing our ability to intervene in these processes requires an increased understanding of cellular and molecular changes as they occur in intact living animal models. We have begun to address these needs by developing a method of labeling tumor cells through constitutive expression of an optical reporter gene, and noninvasively monitoring cellular proliferation in vivo using a sensitive photon detection system. A stable line of HeLa cells that expressed a modified firefly luciferase gene was generated, and proliferation of these cells in irradiated severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) mice was monitored. Tumor cells were introduced into animals via subcutaneous, intraperitoneal and intravenous inoculation and whole body images, that revealed tumor location and growth kinetics, were obtained. The number of photons that were emitted from the labeled tumor cells and transmitted through murine tissues was sufficient to detect 1x10(3) cells in the peritoneal cavity, 1x10(4) cells at subcutaneous sites and 1x10(6) circulating cells immediately following injection. The kinetics of cell proliferation, as measured by photon emission, was exponential in the peritoneal cavity and at subcutaneous sites. Intravenous inoculation resulted in detectable colonies of tumor cells in animals receiving more than 1x10(6) cells. Our demonstrated ability to detect small numbers of tumor cells in living animals noninvasively suggests that therapies designed to treat minimal disease states, as occur early in the disease course and after elimination of the tumor mass, may be monitored using this approach. Moreover, it may be possible to monitor micrometastases and evaluate the molecular steps in the metastatic process. Spatiotemporal analyses of neoplasia will improve the predictability of animal models of human disease as study groups can be followed over time, and this method will accelerate development of novel therapeutic strategies.