Thioredoxin and thioredoxin reductase are redox proteins that have been implicated in the control of cell proliferation and transformation. We report the levels and activity of these proteins and their mRNAs in human primary tumors and tumor cell lines. Half of human primary colorectal carcinomas (5/10) examined had increased thioredoxin mRNA, of 3- to over 100-fold, compared to adjacent normal colonic mucosa from the same subject. Thioredoxin reductase protein and activity were increased an average of 2-fold in human colorectal tumors compared to normal mucosa. A number of human hematologic and solid tumor cell lines were studied and showed a 10-fold range of thioredoxin mRNA and a 23-fold range of thioredoxin reductase mRNA. Increased proliferation and hypoxia are factors that might contribute to the increased expression in solid tumors. We found that serum stimulation of growth arrested MCF-7 breast cancer cells caused a 59% increase in thioredoxin mRNA and a 62% increase in thioredoxin reductase mRNA by 24 hours. Exposure of HT-20 colon cancer cells to hypoxia resulted in a 14-fold increase in thioredoxin mRNA by 16 hours, and a transient 4-fold increase in thioredoxin reductase mRNA at 1 hour that had returned to control levels by 8 hours. Cancer cells were found to release thioredoxin into the medium at rates between 1 to 2 pmole/10(6) cells/3 hours. The rate of secretion was not, however, related to cellular-levels of thioredoxin. The results of the study show that the expression of thioredoxin and thioredoxin reductase are increased several fold in some human solid tumors compared to normal tissue. Secretion of thioredoxin, which is known to have a direct growth stimulating activity, by human tumor cells might lead to the stimulation of cancer cell growth.