Chemotherapy for brain tumours has been limited because of difficulty in achieving adequate exposure to the tumour without systemic toxicity. We have developed a method for local sustained release of chemotherapeutic agents by their incorporation into biodegradable polymers. Implantation of the drug-impregnated polymer at the tumour site allows prolonged local exposure with minimal systemic exposure. We conducted a randomised, placebo-controlled, prospective study to evaluate the effectiveness of biodegradable polymers impregnated with carmustine to treat recurrent malignant gliomas. In 27 medical centres, 222 patients with recurrent malignant brain tumours requiring re-operation were randomly assigned to receive surgically implanted biodegradable polymer discs with or without 3.85% carmustine. Randomisation balanced the treatment groups for all of the prognostic factors examined. Median survival of the 110 patients who received carmustine polymers was 31 weeks compared with 23 weeks for the 112 patients who received only placebo polymers (hazard ratio = 0.67, p = 0.006, after accounting for the effects of prognostic factors). Among patients with glioblastoma, 6-month survival in those treated with carmustine-polymer discs was 50% greater than in those treated with placebo (mortality = 32 of 72 [44%] vs 47 of 73 [64%], p = 0.02). There were no clinically important adverse reactions related to the carmustine polymer, either in the brain or systemically. Interstitial chemotherapy delivered with polymers directly to brain tumours at the time of surgery seems to be a safe and effective treatment for recurrent malignant gliomas.