Primary hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is probably one of the most common fatal forms of liver cancer. We have established permanent cell lines from diethylnitrosamine/phenobarbital induced primary rat liver carcinomas to study new anticancer therapies. The rat hepatocellular carcinoma cell lines (HR-2, HR-3, and HR-4) have been maintained in culture for over 3 years. They form tumors when transplanted sc or im into young syngeneic rats. Immunocytology (alpha-fetoprotein, albumin), biochemical (gamma-glutamyl transferase), and histochemical (glycogen) marker studies and electron microscopy (biliary canaliculi) showed unique, stable differentiation patterns in these tumor lines. They overproduced the c-met protooncogene product and formed colonies spontaneously in semisolid culture with high cloning efficiency (HR-2: 50%-80%, HR-3: 35%-50% and HR-4: 50%-65%). The sensitivity of these cell lines to inhibitors of protein ser/thr phosphatase-2A (PP2A), a key enzyme in the control of G1/S and G2/M cell cycle phase transitions in eukaryotes, was studied in vitro. The specific, weak inhibitor of PP2A, endothall, caused dose- and time-dependent cytostasis specifically in G2/M. The cells died later by apoptosis, which was confirmed by cytology (annexin V-FITC labeling, propidium iodide painting of apoptotic bodies) and by fluorescent activated cell sorter (FACS) DNA measurements. The HR-2, HR-3, HR-4, and Zajdela hepatocellular carcinomas were most sensitive to endothall (IC50 of 1.7, 1.2, 0.9, and 1.7 microg/mL), whereas newborn rat hepatocytes growing exponentially in primary culture (IC50 = 6.2 microg/mL), rat DHD/K12 colon carcinoma cells (IC50 = 3.6 microg/mL), or human HT-29 colon carcinoma cells (IC50 = 4.9 microg/mL) were less sensitive. Thus, endothall inhibits preferentially HCC growth and these new rat hepatocellular carcinoma lines may be useful for further biochemical and pharmacological studies on PP2A inhibitors, and for testing new forms of treatment of hepatic cell carcinomas.