Studies were conducted to determine the comparative effects of tocopherols and tocotrienols on normal mammary epithelial cell growth and viability. Cells isolated from midpregnant BALB/c mice were grown within collagen gels and maintained on serum-free media. Treatment with 0-120 microM alpha- and gamma-tocopherol had no effect, whereas 12.5-100m microM tocotrienol-rich fraction of palm oil (TRF), 100-120 microM delta-tocopherol, 50-60 microM alpha-tocotrienol, and 8-14 microM gamma- or delta-tocotrienol significantly inhibited cell growth in a dose-responsive manner. In acute studies, 24-h exposure to 0-250 microM alpha-, gamma-, and delta-tocopherol had no effect, whereas similar treatment with 100-250 microM TRF, 140-250 microM alpha-, 25-100 microM gamma- or delta-tocotrienol significantly reduced cell viability. Growth-inhibitory doses of TRF, delta-tocopherol, and alpha-, gamma-, and delta-tocotrienol were shown to induce apoptosis in these cells, as indicated by DNA fragmentation. Results also showed that mammary epithelial cells more easily or preferentially took up tocotrienols as compared to tocopherols, suggesting that at least part of the reason tocotrienols display greater biopotency than tocopherols is because of greater cellular accumulation. In summary, these findings suggest that the highly biopotent gamma- and delta-tocotrienol isoforms may play a physiological role in modulating normal mammary gland growth, function, and remodeling.