Modulation of the cellular response by the administration of probiotic bacteria may be an effective strategy for preventing or inhibiting tumour growth. We orally pre-inoculated mice with probiotics Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM (La) for 14 d. Subcutaneous dorsal-flank tumours and segmental orthotopic colon cancers were implanted into mice using CT-26 murine colon adenocarcinoma cells. On day 28 after tumour initiation, the lamina propria of the colon, mesenteric lymph nodes (MLN) and spleen were harvested and purified for flow cytometry and mRNA analyses. We demonstrated that La pre-inoculation reduced tumour volume growth by 50·3 %, compared with untreated mice at 28 d after tumour implants (2465·5 (sem 1290·4) v. 4950·9 (sem 1689·3) mm3, P < 0·001). Inoculation with La reduced the severity of colonic carcinogenesis caused by CT-26 cells, such as level of colonic involvement and structural abnormality of epithelial/crypt damage. Moreover, La enhanced apoptosis of CT-26 cells both in dorsal-flank tumour and segmental orthotopic colon cancer, and the mean counts of apoptotic body were higher in mice pre-inoculated with La (P < 0·05) compared with untreated mice. La pre-inoculation down-regulated the CXCR4 mRNA expressions in the colon, MLN and extra-intestinal tissue, compared with untreated mice (P < 0·05). In addition, La pre-inoculation reduced the mean fluorescence index of MHC class I (H-2Dd, -Kd and -Ld) in flow cytometry analysis. Taken together, these findings suggest that probiotics La may play a role in attenuating tumour growth during CT-26 cell carcinogenesis. The down-regulated expression of CXCR4 mRNA and MHC class I, as well as increasing apoptosis in tumour tissue, indicated that La may be associated with modulating the cellular response triggered by colon carcinogenesis.