Natural cytotoxicity, mediated by natural killer (NK) cells and cell with lymphokine-activated killer (LAK) activity, is believed to play an important role in host anti-cancer mechanisms. The authors critically review recent publications on the role of natural cytotoxicity in patients with cancer. In patients with cancer, several studies have noted variations in the numbers and activity of NK and cells with LAK activity in different body compartments. NK cell activity in the peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBLs) is higher than that found in lymph nodes and within tumors, and this appears to be due to the presence of suppressor factors. The natural cytotoxicity of PBLs in patients with different types of cancers varies. However, there appears to be a trend for natural cytotoxicity to be reduced in certain cancer patients, possibly related to tumor volume or dissemination. Anti-cancer treatments (e.g., surgery, hormonal modulation, radiotherapy and chemotherapy) can also result in suppression of natural cytotoxicity, although the long-term effect on response to treatment and development of metastases is at present unknown. NK and LAK cells, through the use of immune biologic modifiers, have been demonstrated to have a therapeutic role in the treatment of human cancers. Further studies are required to determine the optimal dosages and combinations of chemotherapeutic agents, the timing of surgery, and the adjuvant use of immune biologic response modifiers. An increasing awareness and understanding of this field, may allow for the future development of anti-cancer therapies.