Wild-type (wt) p53 DNA was transfected into the radioresistant human cell line JSQ-3, established from a squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN), using a transferrin-liposome system, and the ability of the introduced wt p53 to sensitize the transfected JSQ-3 cells to ionizing radiation was examined. Transferrin increased the in vitro transfection efficiency of cationic liposomes up to 70-80% in JSQ-3 cells, representing a 6- to 10-fold increase over liposome transfection alone. The exogenous wt p53 was expressed at high levels in transferrin-liposome-DNA-transfected cells and resulted in the reversion of the radioresistant phenotype of the JSQ-3 cells in a DNA dose-dependent manner. The D10 values were reduced from 6.36 +/- 0.54 Gy to 4.13 +/- 0.06 Gy, a value in the radiosensitive range. In vivo, the intratumoral injection of the transferrin-liposome system resulted in a higher number of transfected tumor cells in the JSQ-3 induced nude mouse xenografts when compared with transfection by liposome alone. The results indicate that the combination of p53 replacement gene transduction, mediated by the relatively safe transferrin-liposome system, and conventional ionizing radiation may provide a more effective treatment for head and neck cancer.