One of the problems in achieving cures with radioimmunotherapy is that hematological toxicity limits the quantity of radiolabeled monoclonal antibody (MAb) that can be administered. The MAb CC49 binds with high affinity to the TAG-72 antigen expressed in many human adenocarcinomas. We investigated tumor growth inhibition, survival, and tumor and bone marrow dosimetry after multiple bolus injections or continuous infusion of 131I-labeled CC49 MAb in a human colon cancer xenograft model to determine which method of administration results in the highest therapeutic ratio. Groups of athymic nude mice bearing established s.c. LS174T human colon cancer xenografts received three i.p. bolus injections (3X) of 131I-labeled CC49 (3X, days 0, 3, and 7) or were implanted i.p. with mini-osmotic pumps delivering 131I-labeled CC49 over 7 days. The total radionuclide doses administered were broken down into low-dose (< or = 450 microCi), medium-dose (450-800 microCi), and high-dose (> 800 microCi) groups. At the medium-dose level, the bolus-therapy animals did not have a significantly longer survival time but did have a significantly longer time-to-tumor doubling than the pump-therapy animals. The median survival for medium-dose bolus and pump therapy was 157 and 105 days, respectively, and the median time-to-tumor doubling was at least 114 and 77 days, respectively. At the low-dose level, the bolus-therapy animals had a significantly longer survival time but not a significantly longer time-to-tumor doubling than the pump-therapy animals. The median survival for low-dose bolus and pump therapy was 95.5 and 59 days, respectively, and the median time-to-tumor doubling was 73 and 38 days, respectively. The high-bolus dose was toxic. A comparison of the overall survival rate of pump therapy versus bolus therapy, excluding high-dose, resulted in the bolus-therapy animals having a longer survival time and a longer time-to-tumor doubling than the pump-therapy animals. Serial section autoradiography was used to reconstruct tumor activity density distributions over time. Average dose values calculated from total uptake data for 900 microCi administered activity yielded 158 Gy (3X) and 141 Gy (pump). Average three-dimensional doses using the radial histograms to calculate the absorbed fractions were 139 Gy and 123 Gy, respectively. This calculation includes energy loss external to the tumor. With cell proliferation parameters set to single fraction 60Co recurrence results, the effective dose (D(eff)) for local control was 11 Gy and 9 Gy, respectively. Three bolus injections resulted in a more uniform dose rate over a longer period, resulting in a calculated 19% improvement in D(eff) compared with pump administration. Dose to bone marrow was calculated assuming an activity concentration in bone marrow of 0.24 times the concentration in blood and an absorbed fraction of 0.63. For the 900-microCi 131I-labeled CC49 injected activity, pump administration resulted in an 80% higher calculated D(eff) to bone marrow compared with 3X bolus injection. These results demonstrate that 3X bolus injections were clearly superior to pump administration in terms of survival, tumor growth inhibition, tumor absorbed dose, and bone marrow dose.