Dendritic cells (DC) are potent inducers of immune responses. DC have been shown to infiltrate tumors, but very little is known about the functional status of these naturally occurring tumor-infiltrating DC (TIDC). In this study, the status and function of TIDC from several types of mouse melanoma were investigated in detail. CD11c+/MHC II+ cells, consistent with a DC phenotype, were found in all of transplantable or spontaneous melanomas studied. These TIDC were predominantly myeloid (CD11c+/CD8alpha-/B220-) in nature with small numbers of plasmacytoid (CD11c+/B220+). TIDC had an intermediate maturation phenotype with some expression of costimulatory molecules and the capacity to take up particles. Upon culture overnight ex vivo, the TIDC markedly up-regulated the expression of costimulatory molecules and also increased IL-12 production. Importantly, such ex vivo-matured TIDC pulsed with OVA were able to migrate to lymph nodes, to activate naive OVA-specific CD4+ and CD8+ T cells, and to confer protection against a challenge with OVA-expressing tumor cells. In conclusion, melanomas are infiltrated by functional DC that can act as fully competent APC. These APC have the potential to be manipulated and may therefore represent a promising target for cancer immunotherapy.