Patients who experience local failure following radiation treatment of epithelial malignancies exhibit a substantially higher rate of distant metastasis than those patients who achieve permanent local control. This fact has raised concern that the local failure to control the primary/regional tumor may serve as a marker of a particularly malignant neoplasm, i.e., high metastatic activity and radiation resistance. If this were true, there would be no gains in survival by increasing the efficacy of treating the primary/regional disease because the new local controls would develop distant metastasis. To investigate this concept, the relationship between distant metastasis probability and tumor cell radiation resistance has been studied by examining laboratory and clinical data (in vitro and in vivo assays) from six collaborating centers. TCD50s (radiation dose which inactivates half of the irradiated tumors) and incidence of distant metastasis in mice with local control have been evaluated for 24 murine tumor systems. SF2s (surviving fraction after 2 Gy) were determined in vitro for cell lines from 8 human, 13 mouse, and 15 rat tumors/tumor sublines and the metastatic activity assessed after injection of the cells into syngeneic murine hosts and xenogenic hosts for the human tumors. SF2s of cells from carcinomas of the head/neck, cervix, and endometrium which were controlled locally by radiation - surgery from four centers were compared for those which did and those which did not metastasize. The total number of patients studied was 222. The cumulative distributions of SF2s of locally controlled tumors which did and did not metastasize were not different in each of the data sets. Similarly, there was no demonstrable relationship between TCD50s and metastatic frequency in local control mice. Furthermore, the SF2s of murine and human tumor cell lines did not track with metastatic activity. Radiation sensitivity of clinical and laboratory tumors did not correlate with metastatic activity in studies of data from six centers. © 1994, American Association for Cancer Research. All rights reserved.