The apoptosis-inducing properties of RRR-alpha-, beta-, gamma-, and delta-tocopherols, alpha-, gamma-, and delta-tocotrienols, RRR-alpha-tocopheryl acetate (vitamin E acetate), and RRR-alpha-tocopheryl succinate (vitamin E succinate) were investigated in estrogen-responsive MCF7 and estrogen-nonresponsive MDA-MB-435 human breast cancer cell lines in culture. Apoptosis was characterized by two criteria: 1) morphology of 4,6-diamidino-2-phenylindole-stained cells and oligonucleosomal DNA laddering. Vitamin E succinate, a known inducer of apoptosis in several cell lines, including human breast cancer cells, served as a positive control. The estrogen-responsive MCF7 cells were more susceptible than the estrogen-nonresponsive MDA-MB-435 cells, with concentrations for half-maximal response for tocotrienols (alpha, gamma, and delta) and RRR-delta-tocopherol of 14, 15, 7, and 97 micrograms/ml, respectively. The tocotrienols (alpha, gamma, and delta) and RRR-delta-tocopherol induced MDA-MB-435 cells to undergo apoptosis, with concentrations for half-maximal response of 176, 28, 13, and 145 micrograms/ml, respectively. With the exception of RRR-delta-tocopherol, the tocopherols (alpha, beta, and gamma) and the acetate derivative of RRR-alpha-tocopherol (RRR-alpha-tocopheryl acetate) were ineffective in induction of apoptosis in both cell lines when tested within the range of their solubility, i.e., 10-200 micrograms/ml. In summary, these studies demonstrate that naturally occurring tocotrienols and RRR-delta-tocopherol are effective apoptotic inducers for human breast cancer cells.