The potential for inhibitors of nuclear factor-kappaB (NF-kappaB) activation to act as inhibitors of muscle protein degradation in cancer cachexia has been evaluated both in vitro and in vivo. Activation of NF-kappaB is important in the induction of proteasome expression and protein degradation by the tumour factor, proteolysis-inducing factor (PIF), since the cell permeable NF-kappaB inhibitor SN50 (18 microM) attenuated the expression of 20S proteasome alpha-subunits, two subunits of the 19S regulator MSS1 and p42, and the ubiquitin-conjugating enzyme, E2(14k), as well as the decrease in myosin expression in murine myotubes. To assess the potential therapeutic benefit of NF-kappaB inhibitors on muscle atrophy in cancer cachexia, two potential inhibitors were employed; curcumin (50 microM) and resveratrol (30 microM). Both agents completely attenuated total protein degradation in murine myotubes at all concentrations of PIF, and attenuated the PIF-induced increase in expression of the ubiquitin-proteasome proteolytic pathway, as determined by the 'chymotrypsin-like' enzyme activity, proteasome subunits and E2(14k). However, curcumin (150 and 300 mg kg(-1)) was ineffective in preventing weight loss and muscle protein degradation in mice bearing the MAC16 tumour, whereas resveratrol (1 mg kg(-1)) significantly attenuated weight loss and protein degradation in skeletal muscle, and produced a significant reduction in NF-kappaB DNA-binding activity. The inactivity of curcumin was probably due to a low bioavailability. These results suggest that agents which inhibit nuclear translocation of NF-kappaB may prove useful for the treatment of muscle wasting in cancer cachexia.