Xeroderma pigmentosum (XP) is a rare autosomal recessive disorder with sun sensitivity, markedly increased skin cancer susceptibility, and defective DNA repair without consistently identified symptoms of immune deficiency. We examined natural killer (NK) cell activity and interferon production in peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL) of eight XP patients who had multiple primary skin cancers. The XP patients had normal numbers of T cells and NK cells, as well as normal lymphokine-activated killer cell activity and normal tumor necrosis factor-alpha production. Unstimulated NK cell function was 40% of normal controls in five XP patients, but was normal in three other XP patients. However, PBL from all the XP patients tested showed no enhancement of NK activity by the interferon inducer, polyinosinic acid:polycytidilic acid (polyIC) but enhancement by interferon-alpha was normal, suggesting an impairment in interferon production. Parallel studies in non-XP skin cancer patients revealed that both unstimulated and polyIC-enhanced NK activity were normal. Further investigation using PBL from XP patients revealed that the production of interferon-gamma after stimulation with interferon inducers (polyIC, interleukin 2, or K562 tumor cells) was 13-43% of normals. These data indicate that XP lymphocytes have a defect in production of interferons and suggest that defective interferon production, as well as DNA repair defects, may play an important role in the susceptibility of XP patients to skin cancer.