A major goal of cancer immunotherapy is the induction of a cell-mediated antitumor response in poorly immunogenic malignancies. We tested the hypothesis that this can be achieved by cytokine gene therapy with a novel histone H2A-based transient transfection procedure. This was tested by using cytokine genes encoding for IL-2 and a single chain IL-12 (scIL-12) fusion protein in a recently developed murine neuroblastoma model. Here, we demonstrate that cytokine gene transfer of IL-2 and scIL-12 with histone H2A results in the induction of an antitumor immune response that is superior in some respects to gene transfer with Superfect, a commercially available activated dendrimer commonly used to effect transfection with plasmids. Three lines of evidence support this contention. First, histone H2A-mediated transfection of IL-2 induces a natural killer cell-induced rejection of primary tumors in contrast to Superfect, which produces only a partial reduction in primary tumor growth. Second, the induction of a T cell-mediated protective tumor immunity following gene transfer of scIL-12 is more efficient with the histone H2A-mediated gene transfer because rejection of a lethal wild-type tumor cell challenge is accompanied by the greatest degree of MHC class I-restricted tumor cell killing in vitro. Third, histone H2A-mediated scIL-12 gene therapy induces the greatest release of mIFN-gamma from splenocytes of vaccinated animals in contrast to Superfect and other controls.