Deoxycytidine kinase (dCK) activates several clinically important drugs, including the recently developed antileukaemic compound 2-chlorodeoxyadenosine (CdA). The distribution of dCK in cells and tissues has previously been determined by activity measurements, which may be unreliable because of the presence of other enzymes with overlapping substrate specificities. Therefore we have measured dCK polypeptide levels in extracts of normal and malignant human peripheral blood mononuclear cells, gastrointestinal tissues and sarcomas, using a specific immunoblotting technique, as well as the phosphorylation of CdA in the same extracts. High levels of dCK were found in all major subpopulations of normal mononuclear leucocytes (120 +/- 19 ng dCK/mg protein) and in B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (81 +/- 30 ng/mg, n = 23). Hairy-cell leukaemia contained lower levels (28 +/- 23 ng/mg, n = 7), as did three samples of T-cell chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (18 +/- 14 ng/mg). Phytohaemagglutinin stimulation of normal lymphocytes did not lead to any substantial increase in either dCK activity or protein expression (less than 2.5-fold). The human CEM wt T-lymphoblastoid cell line contained 56 +/- 1 ng/dCK/mg protein, while in the CEM ddC50 and AraC8D mutants that lack dCK activity, no dCK polypeptide could be detected. In colon adenocarcinomas, the dCK content was significantly higher (20 +/- 9 ng/mg, n = 20) than in normal colon mucosa (8 +/- 3.5 ng/mg, n = 19, P < 0.05). A similar pattern of dCK expression was found in gastric adenocarcinomas (21 +/- 13 ng/mg, n = 5) and normal stomach mucosa (6 +/- 5 ng/mg, n = 5, P < 0.15). One leiomyosarcoma and one extra-skeletal osteosarcoma showed dCK levels comparable with those found in normal lymphocytes (84 +/- 6 and 109 +/- 4 ng/mg, respectively), while other sarcoma samples contained lower levels, comparable to the gastrointestinal adenocarcinomas (20 +/- 7 ng/mg, n = 12). Thus, dCK is expressed constitutively and predominantly in lymphoid cells, but it is also found in solid non-lymphoid tissues, with increased levels in malignant cells. The phosphorylation of CdA in crude extracts showed a close correlation to the dCK polypeptide level.