We hypothesized that key antiproliferative target genes for the vitamin D receptor (VDR) were repressed by an epigenetic mechanism in prostate cancer cells resulting in apparent hormonal insensitivity. To explore this possibility, we examined nuclear receptor corepressor expression in a panel of nonmalignant and malignant cell lines and primary cultures, and found frequently elevated SMRT corepressor mRNA expression often associated with reduced sensitivity to 1alpha,25-dihydroxyvitamin D(3) (1alpha,25(OH)2D3). For example, PC-3 and DU-145 prostate cancer cell lines had 1.8-fold and twofold increases in SMRT mRNA relative to normal PrEC cells (P<0.05). Similarly, 10/15 primary tumour cultures (including three matched to normal cells from the same donors) had elevated SMRT mRNA levels; generally NCoR1 and Alien were not as commonly elevated. Corepressor proteins often have associated histone deacetylases (HDAC) and reflectively the antiproliferative action of 1alpha,25(OH)2D3 can be 'restored' by cotreatment with low doses of HDAC inhibitors such as trichostatin A (TSA, 15 nM) to induce apoptosis in prostate cancer cell lines. To decipher the transcriptional events that lead to these cellular responses, we undertook gene expression studies in PC-3 cells after cotreatment of 1alpha,25(OH)2D3 plus TSA after 6 h. Examination of known VDR target genes and cDNA microarray analyses revealed cotreatment of 1alpha,25(OH)2D3 plus TSA cooperatively upregulated eight (out of 1176) genes, including MAPK-APK2 and GADD45alpha. MRNA and protein time courses and inhibitor studies confirmed these patterns of regulation. Subsequently, we knocked down SMRT levels in PC-3 cells using a small interfering RNA (siRNA) approach and found that GADD45alpha induction by 1alpha,25(OH)2D3 alone became very significantly enhanced. The same distortion of gene responsiveness, with repressed induction of GADD45alpha was found in primary tumour cultures compared and to matched peripheral zone (normal) cultures from the same donor. These data demonstrate that elevated SMRT levels are common in prostate cancer cells, resulting in suppression of target genes associated with antiproliferative action and apparent 1alpha,25(OH)2D3-insensitivity. This can be targeted therapeutically by combination treatments with HDAC inhibitors.