Classic T lymphocyte cytotoxicity is mediated through the T cell receptor (TCR). Defects in TCR signal transduction and cytolytic activity have been reported in tumor infiltrating T lymphocytes. We hypothesized that impaired cytotoxicity occurs in peripheral blood T cells from renal cell carcinoma (RCC) that can be reversed by exposure to rhIL-2. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) from 29 RCC patients and 29 healthy volunteers were isolated and cultured in the absence or presence of 10 IU/ml rhIL-2. A redirected cytotoxicity assay that requires TCR signal transduction was used with chromium-labeled P815 target cells, effector PBMC and anti-CD3 antibody. Target cell lysis was measured in "lytic units" (LU). Mean LU from RCC patients was lower than that of healthy volunteers (105.8 LU vs. 194.6 LU, P = 0.025). Exposure to rhIL-2 increased T cell-mediated lysis in both groups. Disruption of T cell cytotoxicity in RCC patients can be overcome by exposure to rhIL-2.