Twenty-five squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) cell lines from 20 patients with head and neck cancer were assessed for radiosensitivity in vitro using a 96-well plate assay. Four non-SCC lines were also tested. Radiation sensitivity of individual cell lines was compared using the area under the survival curve (AUC) as a measure of the mean inactivation dose. Tumor lines were tested with either a cobalt-60 (60Co) gamma-irradiator having a dose rate of 100 cGy/minute or with a 4-meV photon beam having a dose rate of 200 cGy/minute. The mean AUC of the 25 SCC cell lines was 188 +/- 7 (SEM) cGy (range, 100 to 250 cGy) whereas the four non-SCC lines had a mean AUC of 225 +/- 9 cGy. The SCC cell lines with mean inactivation dose values greater than 188 cGy were classified as relatively radioresistant whereas those with values less than 188 cGy were considered relatively radiosensitive. In seven cases SCC cell lines were derived from patients who had already received radiation therapy. In four of these cases the tumor cell lines were radioresistant (AUC, 210 to 250) but in the other three cases the tumor lines were radiosensitive (AUC, 160 to 180). Thus, failure of a tumor to respond to radiation did not always select for radioresistant cells. The mean of the AUC for cell lines from previously irradiated patients (197 +/- 11 cGy) did not differ significantly from that of the cell lines from patients who received no prior radiation therapy (182 +/- 9 cGy). However, among radiation-resistant lines those from the four previously irradiated patients were significantly more resistant (mean AUC = 235 +/- 9) than seven other radioresistant lines from nonirradiated patients (mean AUC, 208 +/- 4) (P = 0.0194). In four cases more than one cell line was derived from different tumor specimens in the same patient. In each of these cases the lines from the same patients were similar to one another in their degree of radioresistance. Based on these observations the authors conclude that the degree of in vitro radiation resistance is an inherent property of some squamous cell tumors.