Tumor cells from eight freshly isolated cervical cancers (i.e., four adenocarcinomas and four squamous carcinomas) were analyzed for their production of the immune-inhibitory cytokine transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta) in vitro. All fresh adenocarcinomas secreted significant levels of TGF-beta (mean 397, range between 207 and 782 pg/ml/10(5) cells/48 hr). In contrast, no detectable TGF-beta was present in the supernatants from the four fresh squamous carcinoma cultures (P < 0.001). These data suggest that major differences in the secretion of the immunoinhibitory cytokine TGF-beta exist between squamous cell carcinomas and adenocarcinomas of the uterine cervix. Furthermore, these findings suggest that at least some of the differences in the natural biologic behavior, as well as in the response to radiation treatment, between these two histologic types of cervical cancer could be related to differences in secretion of this immune-inhibitory cytokine.