Because alpha-difluoromethylornithine (DFMO) reduces the incidence of experimental colon cancers, inhibits the growth of human lung cancer cells and human leukemia cells in culture, and in combination with methylglyoxal (bis)guanylhydrazone induces remission in children with leukemia, its effectiveness against a human colon adenocarcinoma cell line (Colo 205) was tested alone and in combination with 5-fluorouracil (5-FU). Both DFMO (2 X 10(-4) M) and 5-FU (10(-6) M) inhibited Colo 205 cell proliferation. Above 5 X 10(-4) M DFMO (p less than 0.001) and at 10(-4) M 5-FU (p less than 0.001), Colo 205 growth was completely inhibited. Although DFMO did not sensitize Colo 205 cells to a noninhibitory concentration of 5-FU, the effectiveness of inhibitory concentrations of 5-FU and DFMO in reducing Colo 205 cell growth was additive. DFMO (2 X 10(-4) M) caused 89 to 93% inhibition of ornithine decarboxylase activity (p less than 0.001) and reduced levels of putrescine (93%; p less than 0.01) and spermidine (57%; p less than 0.02). Growth rate and the intracellular putrescine and spermidine contents were restored by 10(-6) M putrescine. DFMO could be an effective chemotherapeutic agent against human colonic cancer because of its effects at such unusually low concentrations in vitro.