We have studied the relationship between L-tryptophan metabolism and the response to human IFN-gamma in 3 human ovarian cancer xenografts growing in nude mice. During IFN-gamma therapy all 3 tumours showed a profound depletion in L-tryptophan and a corresponding rise in L-kynurenine. The microenvironment surrounding the tumours was also depleted of L-tryptophan. The IFN-gamma-inducible enzyme indoleamine dioxygenase, IDO, was induced in treated tumours. While there was a variability in IDO mRNA expression in the different xenografts tested, in situ hybridization showed that the gene was induced at all levels of the tumour, and not just the periphery. These results show that induction of IDO by IFN-gamma in vivo can metabolize L-tryptophan rapidly enough for it to become depleted, despite a continued supply of L-tryptophan from the host. The IDO mRNA and protein remained induced after the L-tryptophan levels had returned to normal, suggesting that the gene may be post-transcriptionally regulated and/or the IDO co-factor supply may be limited. Another IFN-gamma-inducible gene, tryptophanyl tRNA synthetase, was also induced in the tumour. It is possible that this enzyme, which is responsible for synthesizing tryptophanyl tRNA, acts in a compensatory manner by allowing protein synthesis to continue despite low free L-tryptophan concentrations. There was no correlation of the above parameters with the anti-tumour response to IFN-gamma, suggesting that other mechanisms must play a role. L-tryptophan depletion may be a contributor to a multifactorial growth inhibition of tumour cells following IFN-gamma treatment, but cannot on its own explain their growth inhibition.