We have constructed recombinant human adenoviruses that express wild-type human p53 under the control of either the Ad 2 major late promoter (MLP) or the human cytomegalovirus (CMV) immediate early gene promoter. Each construct replaces the Ad 5 E1a and E1b coding sequences necessary for viral replication with the p53 cDNA and MLP or CMV promoter. These p53/Ad recombinants are able to express p53 protein in a dose-dependent manner in infected human cancer cells. Tumor suppressor activity of the expressed p53 protein was assayed by several methods. [3H]Thymidine incorporation assays showed that the recombinant adenoviruses were capable of inhibiting DNA synthesis in a p53-specific, dose-dependent fashion. Ex vivo treatment of Saos-2 tumor cells, followed by injection of the treated cells into nude mice, led to complete tumor suppression using the MLP/p53 recombinant. Following a single injection of CMV/p53 recombinant adenovirus into the peritumoral space surrounding an in vivo established tumor derived from a human small cell lung carcinoma cell line (NIH-H69), we were able to detect p53 mRNA in the tumors at 2 and 7 days post-injection. Continued treatment of established H69 tumors with MLP/p53 recombinant led to reduced tumor growth and increased survival time compared to control treated animals. These results indicate that recombinant adenoviruses expressing wild-type p53 may be useful vectors for gene therapy of human cancer.