Experimental tumors contain a significant fraction of microregions that are chronically or transiently hypoxic. Experimental evidence showing that hypoxia (and subsequent reoxygenation) may have a profound impact on malignant progression and on responsiveness to therapy is growing. The clinical relevance of tumor oxygenation in human solid malignancies is under investigation. We have developed and validated a clinically applicable method for measurement of tumor oxygenation in locally advanced cancer of the uterine cervix using a computerized polarographic electrode system. Applying this procedure in patients with cervical cancers </= 3 cm in diameter, who gave informed consent, we have been studying the clinical relevance of tumor oxygenation prospectively since 1989. As of June 1995, 103 patients with advanced cancers of the uterine cervix [Federation Internationale des Gynaecologistes et Obstetristes (FIGO) stages Ib, bulky (n = 13), IIa and IIb (n = 51), IIIa and IIIb (n = 34), and IVa and IVb (n = 5)] had entered the study. Fifty % of the patients had carcinomas with median pO2 readings <10 mm Hg, referred to as hypoxic tumors. Tumor oxygenation was found to be independent of various patient demographics and also of pretreatment tumor characteristics, such as clinical tumor stage and size, histological type, and differentiation. However, histopathological examination of the surgical specimens following radical tumor resection in 47 patients showed that low-pO2 tumors exhibited larger tumor extensions and more frequent (occult) parametrial spread, as well as lymph-vascular space involvement, compared to well-oxygenated tumors of similar clinical stage and size. Forty-two patients completing primary radiation therapy and 47 patients who underwent radical surgery were analyzed for treatment outcome after a median observation period of 28 months (range, 3-76 months). Patients with hypoxic tumors had significantly worse disease-free and overall survival probabilities compared to patients with nonhypoxic tumors. Cox regression analysis identified tumor oxygenation and FIGO stage as the most important independent prognostic factors. The poorer outcome of the patients with hypoxic tumors was mainly due to locoregional failures with and without distant metastases, irrespective of whether surgery or radiation was applied as primary treatment. Tumor oxygenation as measured with a standardized polarographic method proved to be a powerful new pretherapeutic prognostic parameter providing important information on malignant progression in terms of extracervical tumor spread and radioresistance in advanced cervical cancers.