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BACKGROUND: The notion that a deficit in immune cell functions permits tumor growth has received experimental support with the discovery of several different biochemical defects in T lymphocytes that infiltrate cancers. Decreased levels of enzymes involved with T-cell signal transduction have been reported by several laboratories, suggesting that tumors or host cells recruited to the tumor site actively down-regulate antitumor T-cell immune response. This permits tumor escape from immune-mediated killing. The possibility that defects in T-cell signal transduction can be reversed, which would potentially permit successful vaccination or adoptive immunotherapy, motivates renewed interest in the field. Summarizing the literature concerning tumor-induced T-cell dysfunction, we focus on the end stage of immune response to human cancer, that of defective cytotoxic T lymphocyte killing function. Based on the data from several laboratories, we hypothesize a biochemical mechanism that accounts for the unusual phenotype of antitumor T-cell accumulation in tumors, but with defective killing function.