Using a recently developed model for studying the biology of locally recurrent (LR) mammary tumours in the 13762NF rat mammary adenocarcinoma system, we examined the sensitivity to polymorphonuclear cell, macrophage and natural killer cell cytolysis. The parental MTF7(T20) cell line; the 'primary' tumours which arose following subcutaneous inoculation into the mammary fat pad, scl and sc3; and the local recurrences (following surgical excision) LRI and LRla from scl, and LR3 from sc3 were all cells generally resistant to specific PMN cytolysis. LPS-activated macrophages caused 25.1%, 38.7% and 58.8% specific cytolysis in MTF7, scl and LRI cells, respectively at E:T of 20:1 and 72h co-incubation. LRla, sc3 and LR3 lysis ranged from 0-4.4% under the same conditions. Non-activated macrophages did not lyse any of the cell lines. Locally recurrent and 'primary' tumour cell lines were also not lysed by naive NK cells (range 0.5-4.0% cytolysis). NK cells activated with bropirimine, a potent immunomodulator currently being studied in clinical trials, and/or interleukin-2 were mildly more effective at killing LR cells. Our results show that locally recurrent tumours exhibit heterogeneous sensitivities and are different from 'primary' tumour cells in sensitivities to immune cell killing, but they are not necessarily more or less sensitive. Results with bropirimine-activated or IL-2-activated NK cells emphasize that nonspecific activation is insufficient to eliminate all tumour subpopulations. © The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1988.