We have shown previously that naturally occurring isothiocyanates derived from cruciferous vegetables and their N-acetylcysteine conjugates inhibit lung adenoma formation induced by tobacco carcinogens in A/J mice at the post-initiation stage. The tumor-inhibitory activity by these compounds is linked with activation of activator protein and induction of apoptosis in lung tissues, suggesting that these compounds may also inhibit the development of adenomas to adenocarcinomas in lung. In this study, the chemopreventive activity of phenethyl isothiocyanate and sulforaphane and their N-acetylcysteine conjugates during progression of lung adenomas to malignant tumors was investigated in A/J mice. Mice were divided into 14 groups and treated with a mixture of 3 micromol benzo(a)pyrene [B(a)P] and 3 micromol 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone (NNK) given by gavage once weekly for 8 weeks. Twenty weeks after the beginning of carcinogen administration, a total of 20 mice in the treatment groups were sacrificed with an average yield of 7.3 +/- 4.5 lung adenomas per mouse. The remaining mice in each group were fed diets containing phenethyl isothiocyanate (3 and 1.5 mmol/kg diet), sulforaphane (3 and 1.5 mmol/kg diet), phenethyl isothiocyanate-N-acetylcysteine (8 and 4 mmol/kg diet), sulforaphane-N-acetylcysteine (8 and 4 mmol/kg diet) during weeks 21 to 42. Four mice in each of the high-dose treatment groups were sacrificed during weeks 28 and 36 and the bioassay was terminated during week 42; lung tissues were harvested for histopathologic examination of tumors and for cell proliferation (proliferating cell nuclear antigen) and apoptosis (caspase-3) assays using immunohistochemical staining. At termination, the incidence of adenocarcinoma in the 3 mmol/kg diet phenethyl isothiocyanate group and 8 mmol/kg diet phenethyl isothiocyanate-N-acetylcysteine group was reduced to 19% and 13%, respectively, compared with 42% in the carcinogen-treated control group. At the lower doses, phenethyl isothiocyanate and its N-acetylcysteine conjugate also inhibited the incidences of lung adenocarcinoma, however, the decreases were not statistically significant. The lung tumor incidences in groups treated with sulforaphane-N-acetylcysteine in the diet were also significantly reduced to 11% or 16%. Furthermore, the malignant lung tumor multiplicity was significantly reduced from 1.0 tumor/mouse in the carcinogen-treated control group to 0.3 in the sulforaphane low-dose group, 0.3 and 0.4 in the two sulforaphane-N-acetylcysteine groups, and 0.4 in the phenethyl isothiocyanate high-dose group. The malignant tumor multiplicities in other treatment groups were also reduced (0.5-0.8 tumors/mouse), but not significantly. Unlike lung adenocarcinomas, both incidences and multiplicities of lung adenomas were not much affected by treatment with isothiocyanates or their conjugates. Immunohistochemical examination of the lung tumors from all time points indicated that significant reduction in proliferating cell nuclear antigen and induction of apoptosis (terminal nucleotidyl transferase-mediated nick end labeling and caspase-3) were observed in the isothiocyanate and isothiocyanate-N-acetylcysteine-treated groups that showed inhibition of the development of lung adenocarcinomas. The results of the study provide a basis for future evaluation of the potential of phenethyl isothiocyanate and sulforaphane and their conjugates as chemopreventive agents in smokers and ex-smokers with early lung lesions.