Endogenously generated protoporphyrin IX (PpIX) from exogenous ALA can be an effective photosensitizer. PpIX accumulation is inversely dependent on available intracellular iron, which is required for the conversion of PpIX to heme. Iron also is necessary for cell replication. Since iron can be toxic, intracellular iron levels are tightly controlled. Activated and proliferating cells respond to the demand for intracellular iron by upregulating membrane expression of the transferrin receptor (CD71) which is needed for iron uptake. We predicted that activated lymphocytes (CD71 +) would preferentially accumulate PpIX because of their lower intracellular iron levels and because of competition for iron between ALA-induced heme production and cellular growth processes. Thus, the CD71+ cells could serve as PDT targets. Stimulation of human peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL) with the mitogens, phytohemagglutinin A, concanavalin A and pokeweed prior to incubation with ALA results in PpIX accumulation correlating with level of activation. Activated lymphocytes expressing high levels of surface CD71 transferrin receptors generated more PpIX than those with low CD71 expression. Incubating activated cells in transferrin depleted medium (thereby decreasing the iron availability) further increased PpIX levels. Malignant, CD71 + T lymphocytes from a patient with cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (CTCL)/Sezary syndrome also accumulated increased PpIX levels in comparison to norma] lymphocytes. PDT of activated lymphocytes and Sezary cells after ALA incubation demonstrated preferential killing compared to normal, unstimulated PBL. These findings suggest a possible mechanism for the selectivity of ALA PDT for activated CD71+ cells. They also indicate a clinical use for ALA-PDT in therapy directed towards the malignant lymphocytes in leukemias and lymphomas, and as animmunomodulatory agent.