The increasing interest in 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) modulation and the development of new antifolates has focused attention in recent studies on the expression of the target enzyme thymidylate synthase (TS) as a determinant of drug sensitivity and resistance. Resistance to TS-directed drugs has been shown to occur in vitro and in vivo with increased expression of the enzyme (determined by enzymatic assays as well as protein and gene expression assays). Several studies have evaluated the role of TS as a prognostic indicator of clinical response to chemotherapy containing TS-directed drugs. We have used a polyclonal antibody to recombinant human TS to establish a silver-enhanced immunogold staining method to localize TS in human tumours. Human tumour cell lines with acquired resistance to TS inhibitors owing to increased levels of TS were used to confirm the specificity of immunostaining. Stained sections were evaluated by image analysis. Immunostaining in tumour sections was greatly reduced (>80%) by preabsorption of the antiserum with recombinant TS. The method was used to determine the extent of TS immunostaining in 134 primary human colorectal tumours. The results were then compared with the clinical outcome and response to chemotherapy for the treatment of subsequent metastatic disease. A wide range (approximately 100-fold) of TS immunostaining was observed in these primary tumour sections. Normal mucosal tissue levels were 5-10 times lower than those observed in the adjacent tumour tissue. The values for TS immunostaining did not correlate with clinical endpoints, such as time from diagnosis to relapse, response to chemotherapy for disseminated disease, nor with Dukes' staging. This lack of correlation may be because this group of patients was selected on the basis of their need for palliative chemotherapy and did not include patients who were cured of their disease. Also, primary tumour TS expression may not give a good indication of the TS expression in metastatic lesions. The prognostic significance of TS protein expression in primary and metastatic lesions requires further evaluation.