PURPOSE: Human interleukin-21 (IL-21) is a pleiotropic class I cytokine that activates CD8(+) T cells and natural killer cells. We report a phase 1 study of recombinant human IL-21 in patients with surgically incurable metastatic melanoma. The primary objective was to investigate safety and tolerability by determining dose-limiting toxicity (DLT). The secondary objectives were to identify a dose response for various biomarkers in the peripheral blood, estimate the minimum biologically effective dose, determine the pharmacokinetics of IL-21, determine if anti-IL-21 antibodies were induced during therapy, and measure effects on tumor size according to Response Evaluation Criteria in Solid Tumors. EXPERIMENTAL DESIGN: Open-label, two-arm, dose escalation trial of IL-21 administered by i.v. bolus injection at dose levels from 1 to 100 microg/kg using two parallel treatment regimens: thrice weekly for 6 weeks (3/wk) or three cycles of daily dosing for 5 days followed by 9 days of rest (5+9). RESULTS: Twenty-nine patients entered the study. IL-21 was generally well tolerated and no DLTs were observed at the 1, 3, and 10 microg/kg dose levels. In the 3/wk regimen, DLTs were increased in alanine aminotransferase, neutropenia, and lightheadedness with fever and rigors. DLTs in the 5+9 regimen were increased in aspartate aminotransferase and alanine aminotransferase, neutropenia, fatigue, and thrombocytopenia. The maximum tolerated dose was declared to be 30 microg/kg for both regimens. Effects on biomarkers were observed at all dose levels, including increased levels of soluble CD25 and up-regulation of perforin and granzyme B mRNA in CD8(+) cells. One partial tumor response observed after treatment with IL-21 for 2 x 6 weeks (3/wk) became complete 3 months later. CONCLUSIONS: IL-21 is biologically active at all dose levels administered and is generally well tolerated, and phase 2 studies have commenced using 30 microg/kg in the 5+9 regimen.