Antisense DNA oligodeoxynucleotides can selectively inhibit the expression of individual (undesirable) genes and thus, have potential in the treatment of cancer and viral diseases. A prerequisite to their use as therapeutic agents is information on the stability of oligodeoxynucleotides, and their structurally modified analogs, in the biological milieu. To this end, degradation of 5' end and internally [32P] labelled unmodified DNA oligodeoxynucleotide (D-oligo) and analogs containing phosphorothioate (S-oligo), methylphosphonate (MP-oligo), and novel alternating methylphosphonate and phosphodiester (Alt-MP-oligo) internucleoside linkages was studied in Hela cell nuclear extract, S100 cytoplasmic extract, normal human serum and calf serum at 37 degrees C. Both 5' end and internally labelled D-oligos showed complete degradation within 30 min incubation in human serum at 37 degrees C. In any given medium, the D-oligo was the least stable oligodeoxynucleotide to nuclease degradation whereas the Alt-MP, MP and S-oligos were generally of comparable stability and all relatively more stable than D-oligo. Interestingly, MP and Alt-MP-oligos also exhibited greater resistance to phosphatases in cellular extracts compared to D and S-oligos. Under the conditions of the experiments, increasing degradation for any given oligonucleotide was observed in the order: S100 cytoplasmic extract less than nuclear extract less than normal human serum less than calf serum. In a study involving alpha-MEM cell culture medium containing 10% heat inactivated fetal calf serum (heated to 56 degrees C for 1 hour), the D-oligo was found to be rapidly degraded (degradation evident within 10 mins) whereas degradation products for the S-oligo were observed within 1 hour. In contrast, the Alt-MP oligo remained stable throughout the 3 hour experiment. These results indicated that in cell culture medium containing heat inactivated serum Alt-MP oligo was more stable than D- and S-oligos.