Gene therapy clinical trials targeting p53 and other genes are underway in nongynecologic cancer systems. To explore the potential for antigene therapy in gynecologic oncology, we examined the in vitro effects of oligonucleotides targeting c-myc and p53 in the ovarian cancer cell lines CAOV-3, SKOV-3, and BG-1. The ATP cell viability assay was used to measure growth effects after 6-day treatments with 27-mer antisense phosphorothioate oligodeoxyribonucleotides (oligos) targeting the Puf/nm23 binding region of c-myc and promoter/ATG region of p53. A random sequence of the p53 27-mer was used as a control, and an untransformed fibroblast cell line was used for comparison. IC50 was defined as the oligo concentration required for 50% growth reduction compared to untreated controls. Synergistic vs antagonistic effects of oligo combinations were quantitated by combination indexes (CI) as calculated from median effect parameters by the methods of Chou and Talalay. Mean +/- SE IC50's of c-myc and p53 antisense oligos in CAOV-3 and SKOV-3 ranged from 1.0 +/- 0.2 to 9.7 +/- 1.3 microM. The IC50's of c-myc oligos were consistently lower than corresponding p53 oligos in all cell lines (P < 0.034, t test). The fibroblast cell line was sensitive to anti-c-myc and combination anti-c-myc/p53 oligos (IC50 = 1.5 +/- 0.6 and 1.4 +/- 0.2 microM, respectively), but not to anti-p53 oligos alone (IC50 > 16 microM). Nonspecific toxicity was observed at concentrations of 16 microM for all cell lines except in BG-1, where maximal growth stimulation occurred at this concentration with anti-p53 oligos. Growth stimulation was also observed in BG-1 with anti-c-myc and anti-c-myc/p53 combinations at intermediate doses, with inhibition at higher doses. While c-myc/p53 combinations in CAOV-3 were synergistic (CI < 0.8), they were antagonistic in SKOV-3 (CI > 3.2). Phosphorothioate oligos directed against c-myc and p53 in different cell lines were shown to have both antiproliferative and stimulatory activity, as single agents and in combination, at concentrations that are achievable in vivo. Because of the complex patterns of effects, further in vitro studies are warranted before considering clinical trials with these agents in gynecologic cancers.