Retinoid derivatives have been implicated for the growth regulation of ovarian cancer cells. However, the molecular mechanisms are not yet fully defined. To dissect detailed mechanisms of each derivative, four ovarian cancer cells (A2774, PA-1, OVCAR-3, SKOV-3) were treated with all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA), 9-cis retinoic acid (9-cis RA), 13-cis RA, or 4-hydroxyphenyl retinamide (4-HPR). When treated with 1 microm, HPR inhibits most effectively the growth of all four cells. Depending on cell types treated, IC(50) values were 0.7-2.7 microm for 4-HPR, and 2.7-9.0 microm for other retinoid derivatives. DNA fragmentation assay indicated that the antiproliferative effect of HPR could be mediated by apoptosis. Transcription assays coupled with transient transfection in OVCAR-3 cells indicated that ATRA, 9-cis RA, and 13-cis RA were active for all RAR/RXR subtypes, whereas 4-HPR was only active for RARgamma. However, 4-HPR exerted the strongest suppression on AP-1 (c-Jun) activity. As expected from AP-1 data, in vitro invasion assays showed that HPR blocked effectively the migration of OVCAR-3 cells. Thus, 4-HPR showed not only more potent antiproliferative activity than any other retinoid derivatives used, but also effectively inhibited the invasion, probably through the suppression of AP-1 activity. Taken together coupled with its selective activity only for RARgamma, these results suggest that 4-HPR could be less toxic, and very effective anticancer drugs for late stage ovarian cancer.