Cervical carcinoma affects around 3400 women in the UK each year and advanced disease is routinely treated with radiation. As part of a programme to establish rapid and convenient methods of predicting tumour and patient responses to radiotherapy, we have examined the relationship between the pre-treatment expression of the Ku components of the DNA damage recognition complex DNA-PK and patient survival in cervical carcinoma. Using immunohistochemistry of formalin-fixed sections of tumour biopsies, antibodies to Ku70 and Ku80 stained identical regions of tumour and there was a high degree of correlation between the mean number of cells stained positive for the two components in 77 tumours (r = 0.82, P <0.001). In 53 tumours there was a borderline significant correlation between measurements of tumour radiosensitivity (surviving fraction at 2 gray: SF2) and Ku70 expression (r = 0.26, P = 0.057) and no correlation for Ku80 (r = 0.18, P = 0.19). However, all tumours with a low number of Ku70 or Ku80 positive cells were radiosensitive. Furthermore, using log-rank analysis there was significantly higher survival in the patients whose tumours had a low Ku70 expression (P = 0.046). This difference was also reflected with Ku80, but did not reach statistical significance (P = 0.087). The study suggests that lack of Ku protein leads to radiosensitivity in some tumours and that other factors are responsible for radiosensitive tumours with high Ku expression. It is likely that the most accurate prediction of treatment outcome will lie in assessing the expression of several proteins involved in the recognition and repair of DNA damage, one of which will be Ku. (C) 2000 Cancer Research Campaign.