It is known that gamma-tocopherol inhibits human prostate cancer cell proliferation via down-regulation of cyclin-related signalling but tocopherol and tocotrienol metabolites with a shortened phytyl chain, carboxyethyl hydroxychromans, were not previously investigated as anti-proliferative agents. In this study, the effect of the two main tocopherols, namely, alpha-tocopherol and gamma-tocopherol, and their corresponding metabolites (alpha- and gamma-carboxyethyl hydroxychromans) was studied on proliferation and cyclin D1 expression of the prostate cancer cell line PC-3. The hydrosoluble vitamin E analogues Trolox and alpha-tocopherol succinate were also tested. The most effective inhibitors of PC-3 proliferation were gamma-tocopherol and gamma-carboxyethyl hydroxychroman. Their effect was discernable at 1 microM and reached a plateau at concentrations > or = 10 microM with maximal inhibition values ranging between 70 and 82%. alpha-Tocopherol, alpha-carboxyethyl hydroxychroman, and the analogue Trolox were much less effective; a weak effect was observed for concentrations < or = 10 microM and a maximal inhibition of less than 45% was found at 50 microM concentration. PC-3 cells showed higher inhibition, particularly by the gamma derivatives, than HTB-82 and HECV cells. Tocopherols and carboxyethyl hydroxychromans exerted an inhibitory effect on cyclin D1 expression parallel to the retardation of cell growth. gamma-Carboxyethyl hydroxychroman and gamma-tocopherol showed effects also upstream of the cyclin modulation. Furthermore, the inhibition of cyclin D1 expression by gamma-carboxyethyl hydroxychroman was competed for by alpha-carboxyethyl hydroxychroman. In conclusion, this study shows that carboxyethyl hydroxychroman metabolites are as effective as their vitamin precursors to inhibit PC-3 growth by specific down-regulation of cyclin expression, with the gamma forms being the most effective ones. Although the inhibition of PC-3 cell growth and diminution of cyclin expression are clearly visible, more subtle mechanistic effects of tocopherols and their corresponding carboxyethyl hydroxychroman metabolites deserve further investigations.