Previously, we found that oral cadmium (Cd) treatment either prevented or substantially reduced N-nitrosodiethylamine (NDEA)-induced tumor formation in B6C3F1 mouse liver or lung regardless of exposure interval and even when the Cd was given well after tumors were formed. Because Cd salts are powerful emetics, oral exposure would probably be impractical in humans. Thus, we studied suppression of NDEA-initiated tumors in male B6C3F1 mice by a single i.v. dose of Cd. NDEA (776 mumol/kg i.p.) was given at time 0 followed by CdCl2 (16 mumol/kg i.v.) 40 weeks later. This dose of Cd had no effect on body weights through the conclusion of the study at 52 weeks. The NDEA-induced increase in hepatic tumor incidence (19 tumor-bearing mice/22 mice at risk, 86%) over control (5/24, 21%) was remarkably reduced by Cd treatment (13/27, 48%, P < or = .05). Multiplicity and size of liver tumors induced by NDEA (2.18 tumors/liver; 31.6 mm3 mean volume) were also substantially reduced by the Cd exposure (0.96 tumors/liver; 17.1 mm3 mean volume). NDEA-induced lung tumor incidence (22/22, 100%) and multiplicity (5.09 tumors/lung) were modestly, but significantly, reduced by Cd treatment (21/27, 78%; 3.89 tumors/lung). Clear evidence of tumor-specific cytotoxicity was observed as Cd treatment induced a necrotizing effect that was localized only within the hepatic tumors. Metallothionein (MT), an inducible metal-binding protein associated with tolerance to many metal including Cd, was not detected immunohistochemically in mouse liver tumors, even those undergoing Cd-induced necrosis, whereas the surrounding normal liver cells expressed high levels of MT after Cd exposure. Likewise, in human hepatocellular carcinomas MT was only poorly or erratically expressed relative to normal tissue. These results indicate that a single, nontoxic dose of Cd dramatically reduces liver tumor burden through tumor cell-specific necrosis due to a down-regulation of MT expression in hepatic tumors of murine origin and furthermore indicate that a similar down-regulation of MT occurs in human hepatocellular carcinomas.