BACKGROUND: The neurotropic herpes simplex virus mutant HSV1716 lacks the gene encoding the virulence factor ICP34.5 and cannot replicate in non-dividing cells where proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA) is not actively engaged in cellular DNA synthesis. In the brain, tumoral expression of PCNA therefore confers on it oncolytic specificity and may determine its efficacy. Three phase I trials in glioma patients and one in metastatic melanoma patients have established that HSV1716 is safe and replicates selectively in tumour tissue. Here we examine the in situ PCNA profiles of common human metastatic brain tumours and determine their in vitro permissivity for HSV1716 replication to ascertain their suitability for HSV1716 therapy. METHODS: Histological sections of tumour biopsies obtained from patients undergoing craniotomies were stained for PCNA expression. The replicative ability of HSV wild-type (17(+)) and mutant (1716) viruses was assessed in tissue cultures of the same tumour biopsies and in cancer cell lines by plaque assay. RESULTS: Biopsies of all 10 metastatic tumours (3 melanoma, 4 carcinoma and 3 adenocarcinoma) as well as 4 glioblastoma multiforme were positive for PCNA immunoexpression and supported the replication of HSV1716. The PCNA-positive cells in the metastatic tumours were distributed comparatively in larger and more contiguous areas than in glioblastoma (1.69 +/- 1.61 mm(2) vs. 0.73 +/- 0.77 mm(2)) and numbered 29.0 +/- 12.4 and 12.6 +/- 4.7%, respectively. CONCLUSIONS: The results show that human cerebral metastatic tumours have generally larger and more contiguous proliferative areas, support efficient HSV1716 replication, and are thus potential candidates for such oncolytic viral therapy.