Interferon-alpha (IFNalpha) is a pleiotropic cytokine with direct and indirect antitumour effects. These include prolongation of the cell cycle time of malignant cells, inhibition of biosynthetic enzymes and apoptosis, interaction with other cytokines, and immunomodulatory and antiangiogenic effects. The first clinical trials in solid tumours used crude preparations of natural IFNalpha and demonstrated that tumour regressions in solid tumours and haematological malignancies were possible. Since the advent of genetic engineering technology, recombinant (r) IFNalpha has been widely evaluated in solid tumours. This review discusses the use and potential of rIFNalpha in solid tumours; the first part focuses on malignant melanoma and metastatic renal cell carcinoma (RCC). In the adjuvant treatment of malignant melanoma, rIFNalpha has been tested in randomised trials in more than 6000 patients. High-dosage IFNalpha (> or =10MU) prolongs disease-free survival (DFS) but not overall survival (OS). Low-dosage IFNalpha (< or =3MU) has not been shown to prolong DFS or OS, and current data do not support its use outside clinical trials. The latest United Kingdom Co-ordinating Committee on Cancer Research meta-analysis of ten randomised trials that used adjuvant rIFNalpha has shown that there is a benefit in DFS but not OS. No conclusions can be reached for intermediate-dosage IFNalpha (5 to 10MU) until the mature results of the European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC) study 18952 are available. In RCC, current evidence does not support the use of adjuvant IFNalpha. In metastatic malignant melanoma and RCC, reported response rates to rIFNalpha are approximately 15%. In a minority of responding patients, however, these responses can be long-standing. In metastatic malignant melanoma, IFNalpha combined with other cytotoxic agents with or without interleukin-2 has achieved high response rates but has not improved survival. In metastatic RCC, intermediate dosages of rIFNalpha should be used and therapy should probably be prolonged (>12 months); response depends on prognostic factors such as good performance status, whereas survival is affected by factors such as low tumour burden. Nephrectomy should therefore be considered in patients with good performance status prior to IFNalpha immunotherapy in advanced RCC, even in patients with metastatic disease. The toxicity of high-dosage IFNalpha and the lack of definite benefit on OS with high- or low-dosage IFNalpha do not support its use outside clinical trials. Data from the ongoing US Intergroup studies, the ongoing EORTC 18991 study (long-term therapy with pegylated IFNalpha) and mature data from EORTC 18952 (intermediate-dosage IFNalpha) will help establish the role of IFNalpha as adjuvant therapy in malignant melanoma.