Clinical studies have shown that patients with highly hypoxic primary tumors may have poor disease-free and overall survival rates. Studies of experimental tumors have revealed that acutely hypoxic cells may be more metastatic than normoxic or chronically hypoxic cells. In the present work, causal relations between acute cyclic hypoxia and metastasis were studied by periodically exposing BALB/c nu/nu mice bearing A-07 human melanoma xenografts to a low oxygen atmosphere. The hypoxia treatment consisted of 12 cycles of 10 min of 8% O(2) in N(2) followed by 10 min of air for a total of 4 hr, began on the first day after tumor cell inoculation and was given daily until the tumors reached a volume of 100 mm(3). Twenty-four hours after the last hypoxia exposure, the primary tumors were subjected to dynamic contrast-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging for assessment of blood perfusion before being resected and processed for immunohistochemical examinations of microvascular density and expression of proangiogenic factors. Mice exposed to acute cyclic hypoxia showed increased incidence of pulmonary metastases, and the primary tumors of these mice showed increased blood perfusion, microvascular density and vascular endothelial growth factor-A (VEGF-A) expression; whereas, the expression of interleukin-8, platelet-derived endothelial cell growth factor and basic fibroblast growth factor was unchanged. The increased pulmonary metastasis was most likely a consequence of hypoxia-induced VEGF-A upregulation, which resulted in increased angiogenic activity and blood perfusion in the primary tumor and thus facilitated tumor cell intravasation and hematogenous transport into the general circulation.