Gemcitabine is a nucleoside analogue with excellent clinical activity against solid tumors. Within the cell, gemcitabine is rapidly phosphorylated to its active di- and triphosphate metabolites. Cytotoxicity with gemcitabine appears to be related to multiple effects on DNA replication, where gemcitabine triphosphate can serve as both an inhibitor and substrate for DNA synthesis. Gemcitabine diphosphate inhibits ribonucleotide reductase, producing decreases in cellular dNTP pool levels in a cell-specific manner. These two major characteristics of gemcitabine, reduction in cellular dNTP pools and incorporation into DNA, are features of other antimetabolites antitumor agents which also exhibit radiosensitizing properties. Based on these favorable metabolic characteristics and the clinical activity of gemcitabine in tumor types which are commonly treated with radiation, the ability of gemcitabine to enhance X-radiation induced cytotoxicity was evaluated. Gemcitabine has been shown to be a potent radiosensitizer in a variety of tumor cell lines, including HT-29 colorectal carcinoma, pancreatic cancer, breast, non-small cell lung and head and neck cancer cell lines. Gemcitabine was most effective as a radiosensitizer when administered at least 2 hours prior to irradiation. For most cell lines, radiosensitization was evident at non-cytotoxic concentrations. The extent of radiosensitization increased with both increasing gemcitabine concentration and duration of exposure. Radiosensitization did not require redistribution of cells into a more radiosensitive phase of the cell cycle. The major metabolic effects observed under radiosensitizing conditions were the accumulation of high levels of gemcitabine triphosphate, and a selective decrease in the cellular dATP pool. The pattern of dATP decrease paralleled the increase in radiosensitization, whereas the level of gemcitabine triphosphate was not associated with the enhanced sensitivity to radiation. Compared to other radiosensitizers, the advantage of gemcitabine is that is can induce radiosensitization at concentrations that are 1000 times lower than typical plasma levels obtained with this drug. These studies will be used as guidelines for developing clinical trials of gemcitabine with radiation.