Despite high tumour response rates to platinum-based chemotherapy in ovarian cancer survival is poor due to the emergence of drug resistance. Mechanistic studies in clinical material have been hampered by the unavailability of sensitive methods to detect the critical drug-induced effects in individual cells. A modification of the single cell gel electrophoresis (comet) assay allows the sensitive detection of DNA interstrand crosslinking in both tumour and normal cells derived directly from clinical material. Tumour cells isolated from 50 ovarian cancer patients were treated ex vivo with 100 microM cisplatin for 1 h and crosslink formation and repair (unhooking) measured. No significant difference in the peak level of crosslinking in tumour cells was observed between patients who were either newly diagnosed or previously treated with platinum-based therapy, or between tumour and mesothelial cells from an individual patient. This indicates no difference in cellular mechanisms such as drug transport or detoxification. In contrast, the percentage repair (unhooking) of DNA interstrand crosslinks was much greater in the group of treated patients. At 24 h in the 36 newly diagnosed patient tumour samples, only one gave >50% repair and 23 gave <10% repair; however, 19 out of 22 treated patient samples gave >10% repair and 14 showed >50% repair. The estimated median difference (newly diagnosed minus treated) was -52 (95% CI -67 to -28), and the P-value from a Mann-Whitney test was <0.001. In eight patients, it was possible to obtain tumour samples prior to any chemotherapy, and also on relapse or at interval debulking surgery following platinum-based chemotherapy. In these patients, the mean % repair prior to therapy was 2.85 rising to 71.23 following treatment. These data demonstrate increased repair of DNA interstrand crosslinks in ovarian tumour cells following platinum therapy which may contribute to clinical acquired resistance.