This randomized double-blind placebo-controlled study aimed to determine whether oral intake of 200 microg/d of sodium selenite, a dose within the safe and adequate daily intake (50-200 microg/d) recommended by the U.S. Food and Nutrition Board, will abrogate depressed or enhance normal-level immune functions of patients receiving therapy for squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck. Subjects were given one selenium/placebo tablet/d for 8 wk, beginning on the day of their first treatment for the disease (e.g., surgery, radiation, or surgery and radiation) and their immune functions were monitored. Supplementation with selenium (Se) during therapy resulted in a significantly enhanced cell-mediated immunue responsiveness, as reflected in the ability of the patient's lymphocytes to respond to stimulation with mitogen, to generate cytotoxic lymphocytes, and to destroy tumor cells. The enhanced responsiveness was evident during therapy and following conclusion of therapy. In contrast, patients in the placebo arm of the study showed a decline in immune responsiveness during therapy, which was followed, in some patients, by an enhancement, but the responses of the group remained significantly lower than baseline values. The data also show that at baseline, patients entered in the study had significantly lower plasma Se levels than healthy individuals, and patients in stage I or II of disease had significantly higher plasma selenium levels than patients in stage III or IV of disease.