Folate deficiency has been associated with dysplasia in human cancer models. Patients with ulcerative colitis commonly have decreased folate levels, which are partially due to sulfasalazine, a competitive inhibitor of folate absorption. To study the effect of folate supplementation on the risk of dysplasia or cancer (neoplasia) in ulcerative colitis, records from 99 patients with pancolitis for greater than 7 yr and enrolled in a surveillance program were reviewed. Thirty-five patients with neoplasia were compared with 64 patients in whom dysplasia was never found to determine the effect of folate supplementation on the rate of development of neoplasia using case-control methodology. At the time of the index colonoscopy, patients with neoplasia were older (43 +/- 11 vs. 39 +/- 12 yr) and had disease of longer duration (20 +/- 8 vs. 15 +/- 7 yr, p less than 0.05). Folate supplementation was associated with a 62% lower incidence of neoplasia compared with individuals not receiving supplementation (odds ratio, 0.38; 95% confidence interval, 0.12-1.20). There was no appreciable change in this effect when models were fit to adjust for sulfasalazine dose, duration of disease, age at symptom onset, prednisone dose, sulfa allergy, sex, race, or family history of colon cancer. The statistical power of the association between folate supplementation and neoplasia was 72%. Correction of risk factors before the development of neoplasia may prevent this serious complication. Pending a larger case-control study, folate supplementation during sulfasalazine administration is recommended to possibly prevent the complication of dysplasia or cancer in ulcerative colitis.