In the present study an acidic polysaccharide ginsan, with a molecular weight of 150,000, devoid of lectin properties, was purified from Panax ginseng C.A. Meyer (Araliaceae). Ginsan induced the proliferation of T cells and B cells. Spleen cells became cytotoxic to a wide range of tumor cells without major histocompatibility complex-restriction after 4 or 5 days culture in vitro with ginsan. For the generation of these ginsan-activated killer (AK) cells adherent macrophages and CD4+ cells were needed as accessory cells. The generation of ginsan-AK cells was blocked in the presence of anti-IL-2, anti-IFN gamma, anti-IL-1 or anti-TNF alpha antibodies, showing the importance of these cytokines in the process. The surface phenotypes of the 4 day-cultured ginsan-AK cells was Thy1+, AsGM1+, CD8+, which is distinct from rIL-2 induced lymphokine activated killer (LAK) cells that were CD8. The ginsan also activated macrophages to produce reactive nitrogen intermediates and become tumoricidal. It also exhibited significant in vivo antitumor activity against B16 melanoma cells lines, and in the benzo(a)pyrene-induced autochthonous lung tumor model, at much lower doses than the maximum tolerate doses. Indeed, no mice died, which injected with ginsan at 1g/kg body weight intraperitoneally. In conclusion, 'ginsan' could potentially be an ideal nontoxic antineoplastic immunostimulator by activating multiple effector arms of the immune system.