Melanoma differentiation associated gene-7 (mda-7) was cloned using subtraction hybridization from terminally differentiated human melanoma cells. Based on structural and functional properties, mda-7 is now recognized as interleukin-24 (IL-24), a new member of the expanding IL-10 gene family. Unique properties of mda-7/IL-24 include its ability to selectively induce growth suppression, apoptosis and radiosensitization in diverse human cancer cells, without causing similar effects in normal cells. The utility of mda-7/IL-24, administered by means of a replication-incompetent adenovirus, as a gene therapy for cancer has recently received validation in patients, highlighting an important phenomenon initially observed in pancreatic tumor cells, namely a 'potent bystander apoptosis-inducing effect' in adjacent tumor cells not initially receiving this gene product. We presently investigated the contribution of mda-7/IL-24 secreted by normal cells in mediating this 'bystander effect', and document that normal cells induced to produce mda-7/IL-24 following infection with recombinant adenoviruses expressing this cytokine secrete mda-7/IL-24, which modifies the anchorage-independent growth, invasiveness, survival and sensitivity to radiation of cancer cells that contain functional IL-20/IL-22 receptors, but not in cancer cells that lack a complete set of receptors. Moreover, the combination of secreted mda-7/IL-24 and radiation engenders a 'bystander antitumor effect' not only in inherently mda-7/IL-24 or radiation-sensitive cancer cells, but also in tumor cells overexpressing the antiapoptotic proteins bcl-2 or bcl-x(L) and displaying resistance to either treatment alone. The present studies provide definitive evidence that secreted mda-7/IL-24 from normal cells can induce direct antitumor and radiation-enhancing effects that are dependent on the presence of canonical receptors for this cytokine on tumor cells. Moreover, we now describe a novel means of enhancing mda-7/IL-24's therapeutic potential by targeting normal cells to produce and release this cancer-specific apoptosis-inducing cytokine, a strategy that could be employed as an innovative way of using this unique gene product for treating metastatic disease.