A fundamental obstacle in gene therapy for cancer treatment is the specific delivery of an anticancer gene product to a solid tumor. Although several strategies exist to control gene expression once a vector is directly introduced into a tumor, as yet no systemic delivery system exists that specifically targets solid tumors. Nonpathogenic, obligate anaerobic bacteria of the genus Clostridium have been used experimentally as anticancer agents because of their selective growth in the hypoxic regions of solid tumors after systemic application. In this report we further describe a novel approach to cancer gene therapy in which genetically engineered clostridia are used as tumor-specific vectors for the delivery of antitumor genes. We have introduced into a strain of C. beijerinckii the gene for an E. coli nitroreductase known to activate the nontoxic prodrug CB 1954 to a toxic anticancer drug. Nitroreductase produced by these clostridia enhanced the killing of tumor cells in vitro by CB 1954, by a factor of 22. To demonstrate the specificity of this approach for tumor targeting, we intravenously injected the inactive spore form of C. beijerinckii, which upon transition to a reproductive state will express the E. coli nitroreductase gene. Nitroreductase activity was detectable in 10 of 10 tumors during the first 5 days after intravenous injection of inactive clostridial spores, indicating a rapid transition from spore to reproductive state. Tumors harboring clostridial spores which did not possess the E. coli nitroreductase gene were devoid of nitroreductase activity. Most importantly, E. coli nitroreductase protein was not found in a large survey of normal mouse tissues following intravenous injection of nitroreductase containing clostridia, strongly suggesting that obligate anaerobic bacteria such as clostridia can be utilized as highly specific gene delivery vectors for cancer therapy.