Adoptive immunotherapy, the transfer of spleen cells from immunized mice to mice with a small tumor, was usually curative for mice with the P815 mastocytoma provided that steps were taken to prevent the generation of tumor-induced suppressor cells in the recipient animal. However, failure of adoptive immunotherapy of the P815 tumor, resulting in regrowth of either the primary intradermal or a metastatic tumor, was observed in 10 out of 112 animals receiving graded doses of 7.5 x 10(7) to 3.0 x 10(8) immune spleen cells. Examination of the ten tumors in mice that failed to respond to therapy revealed that seven of them were significantly less susceptible than the original P815 tumor to rejection in vivo by transferred anti-P815-specific effector cells. In addition, nine of the ten therapy-failure tumors were also less susceptible than the original P815 tumor to lysis in vitro by P815-specific, but not DBA/2-specific, cytotoxic T lymphocytes. Sensitivity to lysis by tumor-specific cytotoxic T cells was not, however, strongly correlated with sensitivity to rejection in vivo by P815-specific effector spleen cells. Neither in vivo sensitivity to rejection, nor sensitivity to cytotoxic T cells, was correlated with alterations in class I major histocompatibility complex antigen expression. These results suggest that the survival and outgrowth of variant tumor cells was frequently the cause of failure of specific adoptive immunotherapy of the P815 tumor, and that selection for cells with a reduced sensitivity to killing by cytotoxic T cells was only one mechanism that might lead to an immunotherapeutic failure.