Systemic administration of rIL-18 protein to mice significantly suppresses the growth of murine tumor cell lines. The antitumor effect of IL-18 appears to be primarily mediated by asialo GM1+ cells. Since IL-18 enhances Fas ligand (FasL) expression on NK cell lines, the IL-18 antitumor effects could be mediated by FasL-induced cross-linking of Fas and subsequent tumor apoptosis. To address this question, rIL-18 or rIL-12 was administered to animals bearing the CL8-1 melanoma inoculated intradermally into wild type (wt), lymphoproliferation gene (lpr) (Fas deficient), or generalized lymphoproliferative disease gene (gld) (FasL deficient) mice. Although rIL-12 treatment retained significant antitumor effects in gld and lpr mice, those of rIL-18 administration were completely abrogated in gld but not lpr or wt mice. In vitro cytotoxicity was significantly enhanced against NK-sensitive YAC-1 cells and CL8-1 cells by rIL-18 administration to wt mice, but not to gld mice. Furthermore, rIL-18 administration augmented the cytotoxicity of liver lymphocytes harvested from perforin-deficient mice, whereas rIL-12 administration did not. Consistent with the role of this pathway, rIL-18 administration also up-regulates the expression of FasL mRNA in splenocytes. Lysis of CL8-1 cells induced by anti-Fas agonistic Ab was enhanced about 1.4-fold by IFN-gamma, a cytokine that is induced by IL-18 in vitro and in vivo. We conclude that the antitumor effect of IL-18 is exerted predominantly through a Fas-dependent pathway. The perforin pathway, however, appears to be the predominant cytolytic pathway mediating IL-12 antitumor effects.