Our laboratory has previously reported that the adoptive transfer of highly purified lymphokine-activated killer cells (adherent-LAK, A-LAK) into Fischer 344 (F344) rats bearing established lung or liver micrometastases effectively reduced the resultant tumor growth more than 90%, leading to significant increases in animal survival (Cancer Res. 49, 1441, 1989). To begin to investigate the mechanism(s) by which A-LAK cells mediate this anti-tumor effect, we studied their migration patterns in F344 rats bearing experimentally induced lung and liver metastases as well as subcutaneous tumors. A-LAK cells which were phenotypically 95 to 100% natural killer cells/large granular lymphocytes were labeled with either 51Chromium or fluorescein diacetate (so as to be visualized microscopically). Intravenous injection of such labeled A-LAK cells did not show significant differences in their tissue distribution patterns in tumor-bearing versus normal rats, even when high levels of exogenous recombinant interleukin-2 (rIL-2) was administered. A-LAK cells first migrated to the lungs and then subsequently migrated to the liver and spleen as early as 2 to 6 hr following iv injection. The kinetics of exit of A-LAK cells from the pulmonary capillary beds was not significantly different in rats bearing 3-day micrometastases or 14-day macrometastases compared to normal rats. Moreover, the presence of metastases in the liver did not alter the extent or kinetics of entry of A-LAK cells into the liver even in the presence of exogenously administered rIL-2. Finally, in rats bearing subcutaneous tumors, no evidence could be obtained that A-LAK cells were selectively localized to the tumor site. Tissue sections of livers from metastases-bearing animals injected with fluorescein diacetate labeled A-LAK cells did not demonstrate significant numbers of A-LAK cells infiltrating tumor nests with or without the administration of exogenous IL-2. These data suggest that A-LAK cells may mediate tumor regression in vivo by direct and indirect mechanisms, possibly through the secretion of cytokines and/or the recruitment of secondary effector cells.