Conventional chemotherapy and radiotherapy are ineffective for the treatment of advanced thyroid tumors like poorly differentiated papillary, anaplastic, and medullary thyroid cancer. In the attempt to evaluate the possibility of using retinoic acid (RA) in the treatment of thyroid cancer refractory to conventional therapy, we studied the effect of all-trans-RA treatment on five human thyroid cancer cell lines. We found that WRO and NPA, derived from follicular and poorly differentiated human thyroid carcinoma, respectively, showed a growth inhibition after 25 and 21 d of RA treatment. Both apoptosis and a decrease in DNA synthesis were observed as mechanisms of growth inhibition. In the NPA cell line, a delay of cell-cycle progression has also been observed. On the contrary, we did not observe any recovery of mRNA expression of thyroid-specific genes and in particular of the sodium iodide symporter gene. The lack of recovery of radioiodide uptake after all-trans-RA treatment confirmed the inability to reexpress sodium iodide symporter mRNA. The main difference between the all-trans-RA responding cells (WRO and NPA) and the nonresponding cells [ARO, FRO (derived from human anaplastic thyroid tumors) and TT (derived from human medullary thyroid tumor)] was the basal and all-trans-RA induced RA receptor (RAR)beta mRNA expression. Interestingly, 14 thyroid tumors (10 papillary and four anaplastic) showed a significant lower expression of RARbeta mRNA when compared with normal thyroid tissues. In agreement with this result, only 30% of papillary thyroid carcinomas analyzed were positive for RARbeta protein expression with a degree of expression that was much lower than that found in normal thyroid tissue. In conclusion we found that all-trans-RA treatment can determine a significant in vitro growth inhibition especially in differentiated thyroid tumor-derived cell lines but it seems unable to reinduce the expression of thyroid-specific genes and in particular to reinduce the ability to take up iodine. The growth inhibition is likely due to apoptosis in an early phase and to a decrease of DNA synthesis later. In some cases, a delay of the cell-cycle progression also may be responsible for the growth inhibition. The finding of a basal and RA-induced RARbeta mRNA expression only in cell lines responding to all-trans-RA suggests that the growth inhibition might be mediated by RARbeta.