It is well known that resistance in tumor cells to alkylating agents and, in particular, chloroethylnitrosoureas (CENUs), which are widely used in the chemotherapy of brain tumors, correlate well with activity of the DNA repair enzyme O6-alkylguanine-DNA alkyltransferase (O6-AT). We measured O6-AT activity in human brain tumors in order to obtain basic knowledge of whether or not CENU chemotherapy can be applied selectively on brain tumors. The subjects included 17 gliomas (seven malignant astrocytomas, two glioblastomas, two medulloblastomas, two oligodendrogliomas, two ependymomas, one fibrillary astrocytoma, one primitive neuroectodermal tumor) and five non-glial tumors (three meningiomas, two neurinomas). The value of O6-AT activity for the gliomas varied widely and indicated 111 +/- 65 fmol of 3H-methyl adducts transferred/mg protein extract/hr (mean +/- S.D., range 0-258, 18 tumors), while the non-glial tumors showed a relatively high value of 270 +/- 43 fmol/mg/hr (range 225-330, 5 tumors). A significant difference in the O6-AT activity was noted between the gliomas and the nonglial tumors at the p-value of 0.001. Six (38%) out of 17 glioma cases showed a value below 100 fmol/mg/hr and four cases (24%) a value below 60 fmol/mg/hr. These results provide a biological basis for applying CENU chemotherapy on glioma patients with a lower value of O6-AT enzyme.