Phorbol esters activate protein kinase C and modulate a variety of downstream cell signaling pathways. 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA) is a phorbol ester that induces differentiation or apoptosis in a variety of cell lines at low concentrations. A phase I dose escalation trial of TPA was undertaken for patients with relapsed or refractory malignancies. The starting dose was 0.063 mg/m2 and most patients were treated with an intravenous infusion of TPA on days 1-5 and 8-12 followed by a 2-week rest period prior to retreatment. Thirty-five patients were treated. A biological assay was used to monitor levels of TPA-like activity in the blood after treatment. Serious adverse events included individual episodes of gross hematuria, a grand mal seizure, syncope, and hypotension. Many patients had transient fatigue, mild dyspnea, fever, rigors, and muscular aches shortly after the infusion. Dose-limiting toxicities included syncope and hypotension at a dose of 0.188 mg/m2. Only a single patient had evidence of tumor response. These studies establish 0.125 mg/m2 as the maximally tolerated dose when TPA is administered on this schedule.