Molecular chemotherapy strategies have been developed for a number of epithelial malignancies based on selective delivery and expression of a toxin-encoding gene into the cancer cells. To date, these strategies have not been explored in the context of carcinoma of the cervix, despite the fact that a variety of factors suggest this as an appropriate disease for this gene therapy approach. One limitation in this respect is that appropriate tissue-specific promoters for selective toxin gene expression have not been defined for cervical carcinoma. In this regard, the secretory leukoprotease inhibitor (SLPI) gene has been shown to be constitutively expressed in many epithelial carcinoma cells including the uterine cervix. Thus, we investigated the utility of the SLPI gene as a tissue-specific promoter for regulatory control of the herpes simplex virus thymidine kinase gene for in vitro treatment of cervical carcinoma cells. For this analysis, a gene construct was derived with the herpes simplex virus thymidine kinase gene under regulatory control of the 5' upstream regions of the SLPI gene. Transient transduction of three human cervical carcinoma cell lines with the SLPI-thymidine kinase (TK) construct was followed by treatment with the prodrug ganciclovir. Crystal violet staining was subsequently used to assess cell viability. In this analysis, it was shown that the SLPI-TK construct directed TK-mediated killing in two of three tested cervical cell lines, with the two cell lines being positive for SLPI. In addition, mixing experiments established that cervical carcinoma cells could exhibit a bystander effect which potentially augments the efficacy of molecular chemotherapy approaches. These findings may allow for the development of efficacious, target-specific, toxin gene therapy strategies for cervical carcinoma in human patients.