Irinotecan, 7-ethyl-10-[4-(1-piperidino)-1-piperidino]carbonyloxycamptothecin (CPT-11) is activated by carboxylesterases (CE) to yield the potent topoisomerase I inhibitor, SN-38. We have demonstrated previously that a rabbit liver CE is approximately 100-1000-fold more efficient at drug activation than a highly homologous human CE. In an attempt to use rabbit CE expression in combination with CPT-11 for gene therapy approaches for the treatment of cancer, we have developed an adenoviral vector expressing this intracellular CE. After transduction, this virus produces very high levels of CE activity in a panel of human tumor cell lines and results in marked sensitization to CPT-11 of all of the transduced cells. Reductions in IC(50) values for this drug ranged from 11-127-fold. Additionally, comparison with an adenovirus expressing a secreted form of the rabbit CE indicated that a collateral effect could be achieved with reductions in the IC(50) values ranging from 4-19-fold. These data suggest that the described reagents may be suitable for use in vivo in a viral-directed enzyme prodrug therapy approach using CPT-11.