Porfiromycin (methyl mitomycin C) has been shown in laboratory studies to have increased preferential cytotoxicity to hypoxic cells and therefore may provide enhanced therapeutic efficacy over mitomycin C when used in combination with radiation therapy (RT). The purpose of the two clinical studies reported here is to evaluate the concomitant use of porfiromycin with RT in the management of squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck. Between October 1989 and July 1992, 21 patients presenting with locally advanced stage III/IV squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck were entered into a phase I toxicity trial evaluating porfiromycin as an adjunct to RT. Patients were eligible if they had biopsy documented squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck with a low probability of cure by conventional means. Patients were treated with standard fractionated daily RT to a total median dose of 63 Gy, with porfiromycin administered on days 5 and 47 of the course of RT. Upon completion of this phase I trial, a phase III trial was initiated in November 1992 randomizing patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck to RT with mitomycin C vs. RT with porfiromycin. There is no radiation only arm in this current trial. To date, 75 patients have been entered on this trial and acute toxicity data are available on 67 patients (34 porfiromycin, 31 mitomycin C) who have completed their entire course of treatment. Median follow-up of the 21 patients enrolled in the phase I porfiromycin trial is 58.5 months. Of the 21 patients, 5 were treated at a dose of 50 mg/M2, 4 at 45 mg/M2, and the final 12 at 40 mg/M2, which appeared to result in acceptable acute hematological and nonhematological toxicities. As of December 1995, 14 of the 21 patients have died with disease and 7 remain alive and free of disease, resulting in a 5-year actuarial survival of 32%. Of the patients enrolled to date in the phase III randomized trial of mitomycin C vs. porfiromycin, there have been no statistically significant differences between the two arms with respect to white blood cell count (WBC), platelet, or hemoglobin nadirs. Acute nonhematological toxicities including mucositis, epidermitis, odynophagia, and nausea have also been comparable. Two patients in this current randomized trial died during treatment, apparently of nondrug-related causes. We conclude that the bioreductive alkylating agent porfiromycin has demonstrated an acceptable toxicity profile to date. Final analysis of the phase I trial, which revealed a 5-year no evidence of disease survival rate of 32% in patients with locally advanced disease and a low probability of cure, appears encouraging. We anticipate completion of the current ongoing trial comparing mitomycin C to porfiromycin in the next 2 years. Further investigations, including large-scale multiinstitutional trials employing bioreductive alkylating agents or other hypoxic cell cytotoxins as adjuncts to RT, are warranted.