BACKGROUND: The human FHIT gene is inactivated early in the development of many human cancers and loss of Fhit in mouse predisposes to cancer while reintroduction of FHIT suppresses tumor formation via induction of apoptosis. Fhit protein, a diadenosine polyphosphate hydrolase, does not require hydrolase activity to function in tumor suppression and may signal for apoptosis as an enzyme-substrate complex. Thus, high affinity nonhydrolyzable substrate analogs may either promote or antagonize Fhit function, depending on their features, in Fhit + cells. Previously synthesized analogs with phosphorothioadenosyl substitutions and "supercharged" branches do not bind better than natural substrates and thus have limited potential as cellular probes. RESULTS: Here we link adenosine 5'-O-phosphates and phosphorothioates to short-chain polyols to generate a series of substrate analogs. We obtain structure-activity data in the form of in vitro Fhit inhibition for four types of analog substitutions and describe two compounds, inhibitory constants for which are 65 and 75-fold lower than natural substrates. CONCLUSIONS: The best Fhit inhibitors obtained to date separate two or more 5'-O-phosphoromonothioadenosyl moieties with as many bond lengths as in AppppA, maintain oxygen at the location of the alpha-beta bridging oxygen, and replace carbon for the beta phosphorus.