Epidemiological studies suggest that consumption of vegetables rich in the xanthophylls lutein (LUT) and zeaxanthin (ZEA) reduces the risk for developing age-related cataract, a leading cause of vision loss. Although LUT and ZEA are the only dietary carotenoids present in the lens, direct evidence for their photoprotective effect in this organ is not available. The present study examined the effects of xanthophylls and alpha-tocopherol (alpha-TC) on lipid peroxidation and the mitogen-activated stress signaling pathways in human lens epithelial (HLE) cells following ultraviolet B light (UVB) irradiation. When presented with LUT, ZEA, astaxanthin (AST), and alpha-TC as methyl-beta-cyclodextrin complexes, HLE cells accumulated the lipophiles in a concentration- and time-dependent manner with uptake of LUT exceeding that of ZEA and AST. Pretreatment of cultures with either 2 micromol/L xanthophyll or 10 micromol/L alpha-TC for 4 h before exposure to 300 J/m(2) UVB radiation decreased lipid peroxidation by 47-57% compared with UVB-treated control HLE cells. Pretreatment with the xanthophylls and alpha-TC also inhibited UVB-induced activation of c-JUN NH(2)-terminal kinase (JNK) and p38 by 50-60 and 25-32%, respectively. There was substantial inhibition of UVB-induced JNK and p38 activation for cells containing <0.20 and approximately 0.30 nmol xanthophylls/mg, respectively, whereas >2.3 nmol alpha-TC/mg protein was required to significantly decrease UVB-induced stress signaling. These data suggest that xanthophylls are more potent than alpha-TC for protecting human lens epithelial cells against UVB insult.