The study was conducted to investigate the effects of a novel therapeutic approach, i.e. the combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy, against a human prostate carcinoma xenograft. A topoisomerase I inhibitor, topotecan, and CpG-containing oligodeoxynucleotides (CpG-ODN) were combined. Athymic mice bearing the PC-3 human prostate carcinoma were treated with the maximum tolerated dose (MTD) of topotecan (3 weekly treatments) and with repeated treatments of CpG-ODN (40 and 20 microg/mouse); tumour growth and lethal toxicity were monitored. Topotecan effect on CpG-ODN-induced production of interleukin (IL) 12, interferon (IFN)-gamma and tumour necrosis factor-alpha was also assessed. Since topotecan pretreatment differentially influenced CpG-ODN-induced production of IL-12 and IFN-gamma, the antitumour effects of the two therapies were investigated in a sequential (full topotecan regimen followed by CpG-ODN) or in an alternating sequence (starting with CpG-ODN). Topotecan inhibited PC-3 tumour growth, inducing 95% tumour volume inhibition. All combined treatments resulted in a significant delay in tumour growth, compared to the effects in topotecan-treated mice (P<0.01, by analysis of tumour growth curves). The combination regimens were well tolerated, except for the alternating sequence of 40 microg CpG-ODN and topotecan, which resulted in three out of eight toxic deaths. This alternating sequence was highly toxic even when another cytotoxic drug (doxorubicin) was used in healthy mice. In conclusion, the combination of topotecan and CpG-ODN increased antitumour effects over chemotherapy alone in the growth of a human prostate carcinoma xenograft. Administration sequence was critical to the combination toxicity: the complete regimen of the cytotoxic drug followed by repeated administrations of the immunomodulator seemed the most promising for further investigations.