The main steps in the management of differentiated thyroid cancer are thyroidectomy, treatment with iodine-131 ((131)I), and follow-up with whole-body scanning (WBS) and serum thyroglobulin (Tg) determination. Both (131)I treatment and follow-up require maximum stimulation of normal or pathological thyroid remnants by TSH. The use of recombinant human TSH (rhTSH) has been shown to be useful for follow-up, whereas previous reports are not univocal regarding the use of (131)I postsurgical ablation of thyroid remnants, at least when low doses (30 mCi) of (131)I are administered. A possible explanation for the diminished effectiveness of (131)I treatment after rhTSH may be the interference of iodine content of L-thyroxine (L-T4) therapy during the protocol of administration of rhTSH. We have evaluated the effectiveness of stimulation by rhTSH for radioiodine ablation of postsurgical remnants, stopping L-T4 the day before the first injection of rhTSH and restarting L-T4 the day after (131)I. The study included two groups of patients: group 1 included 16 patients with differentiated thyroid cancer (15 papillary cancers and 1 follicular cancer, stages I and II), who were treated with 30 mCi (131)I with the aid of rhTSH, using the standard protocol but stopping L-T4 as stated previously; and group 2 included 24 patients with the same features (histology and stage) of disease treated with 30 mCi in the hypothyroid state after L-T4 withdrawal. In both groups, serum TSH reached a very good stimulation level [76-210 U/liter (mean, 112 +/- 11 SE) and 38-82 U/liter (mean, 51 +/- 3 SE), respectively]. At the first WBS (after (131)I treatment), all patients showed thyroid remnants. Furthermore, two patients of the first group and three patients of the second group showed lymph node metastases. After 1 yr, all patients were studied again and underwent WBS with a tracer dose of (131)I and serum Tg measurement using rhTSH with the same protocol in both groups. The percentage of ablation (undetectable Tg and a negative WBS) was higher, although not reaching statistical significance, in patients treated with rhTSH: 81.2% in patients treated by rhTSH withdrawal and 75.0% in patients treated by L-T4 withdrawal, respectively. No patient experienced symptoms of hypothyroidism during the 4 d of L-T4 interruption, and serum T4 remained in the normal range. Urinary iodine was analyzed in both groups and compared with a control group of patients who received, for diagnostic purposes, rhTSH without stopping L-T4. In the first group, urinary iodine was 47.2 +/- 4.0 microg/liter (mean +/- SE; P = 0.21 vs. the second group, P = 0.019 vs. control group). In the second group, urinary iodine was 38.6 +/- 4.0 microg/liter (mean +/- SE; P < 0.001 vs. control group); urinary iodine in the control group was 76.4 +/- 9.3 microg/liter (mean +/- SE). Our data show that rhTSH, as administered in the protocol stated previously, allows at least the same rate of ablation of thyroid remnants when low doses (30 mCi) of (131)I are used. The possible role of interference of iodine content in L-T4 is not surprising if we consider that the amount of iodine in 30 mCi is negligible (5 microg) compared with the amount of iodine content in a daily dose of T(4) ( approximately 50 microg). The cost of rhTSH seems modest compared with the high cost of complex therapeutic regimens in other areas of oncology and in consideration of the well-being of patients and of the high level of effectiveness of the treatment.