Malignant mesothelioma (MM) is a solid tumor of the mesothelium for which there is no curative treatment. MM appears to be sensitive to immunotherapeutic approaches, and one of the most powerful immunomodulatory cytokines with antitumor effects is interleukin (IL)-12. We have previously shown in a murine model of MM that systemic administration of recombinant IL-12 induces a potent anti-MM immune response. The nature and accessibility of MM tumors means that they are suitable candidates for direct cytokine and gene-transfer therapeutic approaches. Therefore, we undertook a study to assess the antitumor effects induced by the local production of IL-12 within MM tumors by transfecting a murine MM line with the genes for IL-12. The IL-12 transfectant (AB1-IL-12) did not produce tumors in normal mice, but did so in athymic nude mice, implicating T cells in the prevention of MM tumor growth. In mixing experiments, paracrine IL-12 production inhibited growth of untransfected MM cells provided that cells producing IL-12 represented more than 50-80% of the inoculum. Furthermore, BALB/c mice previously challenged with AB1-IL-12 were protected against rechallenge with parental AB1 tumor, indicating that the transfectant induced long-term immunity. AB1-IL-12 induced systemic immunity that was effective at reducing the incidence of parental AB1 tumor at a distal site, but its effects were dose-dependent. Though both CD4(+) and CD8(+) cells infiltrated the rejecting tumor, CD8(+) effector cells were essential for protection against development of parental AB1 tumor. This study shows that paracrine secretion of IL-12, generated by gene transfer, can induce immunity against MM that can act locally and also at a distant site. In addition, there was no evidence of toxicity, which has been associated with the systemic administration of IL-12, indicating that this cytokine is a good candidate for experimental gene therapy in MM.