Biphenolic components in Magnolia obovata including magnolol and honokiol have shown several pharmacological activities such as anti-tumor, anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Previously in cultured macrophage Raw264.7 cells and fibroblast, we found that obovatol, an active compound isolated from M. obovata inhibited NF-kappaB activity which has been known to be a significant transcriptional factor to control of cancer cell growth. We investigated here whether obovatol could inhibit NF-kappaB activity, and thereby inhibit cancer cell growth in prostate (LNCaP and PC-3) and colon cancer (SW620 and HCT116) cells. Treatment of obovatol (10, 15, 20, 25 microM) inhibits cancer cell growth in the absence or the presence of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha , 10 ng/ml) and tetradecanoyl phorbol acetate (TPA 10 or 50 nM) in a concentration-dependent manner through induction of apoptotic cell death. Cytotoxic activity was not observed in normal cells with up to 50 muM obovatol. It was also found that obovatol inhibited TNF-alpha and TPA-induced transcriptional and DNA binding activities of NF-kappaB. In further study, obovatol decreased translocation p65 and p50 into nucleus via decrease of phosphorylation of IkappaB. Correlated well with the induction of apoptosis, obovatol increased the expression of the apoptotic genes; Bax, caspase-3, caspase-9, whereas inhibited expression of anti-apoptotic genes; Bcl-2, inhibitor of apoptosis protein (IAP-1) and X chromosome IAP (XIAP) as well as the cell proliferation marker genes; Cox-2, c-Fos, c-Jun and cyclin D1. These results suggest that obovatol inhibits prostate and colon cancer cell growth via induction of apoptotic cell death, and that inhibition of NF-kappaB may be a significant as its action mechanism.