Retinoids have been shown to have activity in both preclinical and clinical bladder cancer studies but their exact role in its treatment and prevention remains obscure. In this study cytostatic activity of a novel 9-cis-retinoic acid (9-cis-RA) was compared with two other retinoids: tretinoin and isotretinoin, in three different bladder cancer cell lines: RT4 (well differentiated), 5637 (moderately differentiated) and T24 (poorly differentiated). The three retinoids were incubated at concentrations of 0.3, 3 and 30 microg/ml with bladder cancer cells in microtitre plates for 3 and 6 days. The cytostatic effect was estimated by using luminometric measuring of ATP activity of viable cells in suspension. Compared with the older retinoids, tretinoin and isotretinoin, the highest concentration of 9-cis-RA had a cytostatic efficacy in all three bladder cancer cell lines tested. A clear dose response relationship was observed in isotretinoin-treated cultures after 6 days and in all 9-cis-RA-treated cultures. Tretinoin was either ineffective or had a stimulating effect on poorly differentiated tumour cells. To conclude, isotretinoin and 9-cis-RA had a cytostatic effect on human bladder cancer cells in vitro. However, the possibility of stimulating cancer growth at small doses, at least with tretinoin, and toxicity at high doses must be considered when planning clinical trials.