Fenretinide (HPR), a synthetic retinoid that exhibits lower toxicity than other retinoids, has shown preventive and therapeutic activity against ovarian tumors. Although the growth inhibitory effects of HPR have been ascribed to its ability to induce apoptosis, little is known about the molecular mechanisms involved. Since the proto-oncogene c-Fos has been implicated in apoptosis induction, we analyzed its role in mediating HPR response in a human ovarian carcinoma cell line (A2780) sensitive to HPR apoptotic effect. In these cells, HPR treatment caused induction of c-Fos expression, whereas such an effect was not observed in cells made resistant to HPR-induced apoptosis (A2780/HPR). Moreover, in a panel of other human ovarian carcinoma cell lines, c-Fos inducibility and HPR sensitivity were closely associated. Ceramide, which is involved in HPR-induced apoptosis, was also involved in c-Fos induction because its upregulation by HPR was reduced by fumonisin B(1), a ceramide synthase inhibitor. The causal relationship between c-Fos induction and apoptosis was established by the finding of an increased apoptotic rate in cells overexpressing c-Fos. Similarly to that observed for c-Fos expression, HPR treatment increased c-Jun expression in HPR-sensitive but not in HPR-resistant cells, suggesting the involvement of the transcription factor activating protein 1 (AP-1) in HPR-induced apoptosis. In gene reporter experiments, HPR stimulated AP-1 transcriptional activity and potentiated the AP-1 activity induced by 12-tetradecanoylphorbol 13-acetate. Furthermore, inhibition of AP-1 DNA binding, by transfecting A2780 cells with a dominant-negative Fos gene, caused decreased sensitivity to HPR apoptotic effects. Overall, the results indicate that c-Fos plays a role in mediating HPR-induced growth inhibition and apoptosis in ovarian cancer cells and suggest that c-Fos regulates these processes as a member of the AP-1 transcription factor.