Cytotoxic chemotherapy has shown little antitumour activity against renal cell carcinoma (RCC). Although immunotherapy is relatively effective against RCC, the response rate is approximately 20%. Therefore, there is an urgent need to increase this response rate. Tumour necrosis factor-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL/Apo-2L) is one member of the tumour necrosis factor ligand family that selectively induces apoptosis of cancer cells. Since several cytotoxic anticancer drugs including 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) also mediate apoptosis, we reasoned that combined treatment of cancer cells with TRAIL and drugs might result in synergy and overcome the resistance of the cancer cell. This study has examined whether TRAIL can synergise with 5-FU in both cytotoxic and apoptotic assays against drug-resistant RCC cells. Cytotoxicity was determined by an 1-day microculture tetrazolium dye assay. Synergy was assessed by isobolographic analysis. Treatment of Caki-1 cells with TRAIL in combination with 5-FU resulted in a synergistic cytotoxic effect. Synergy was also achieved in freshly derived RCC cells from 3 patients. The enhanced cytotoxicity was obtained irrespective of the sequence of the treatment, but the highest cytotoxicity was observed when Caki-1 cells were treated with TRAIL and 5-FU simultaneously. The synergy achieved in cytotoxicity with TRAIL and 5-FU was shown to be due to apoptosis. The mechanisms responsible for the synergistic cytotoxicity and apoptosis were examined. Treatment of Caki-1 cells with 5-FU enhanced the expression of p53 and bax, but had no effect on the expression of bcl-2. Incubation of Caki-1 cells with TRAIL enhanced the intracellular accumulation of 5-FU and 5-fluoro-2'-deoxyuridine 5'-monophosphate (FdUMP). Treatment of Caki-1 cells with TRAIL downregulated the expression of thymidylate synthase (TS) and dihydropyrimidine dehydrogenase (DPD) modestly, and upregulated the expression of orotate phosphoribosyltransferase (OPRT). However, the expression level of thymidine phosphorylase (TP) was not affected by TRAIL. This study demonstrates that combined treatment of RCC cells with TRAIL and 5-FU overcomes their resistance. The sensitisation obtained with freshly isolated RCC cells required low subtoxic concentrations of 5-FU. These findings support the potential application in vivo of a combination of TRAIL and 5-FU in the treatment of TRAIL/5-FU-resistant RCC.