Stimulation of lipolysis in murine adipocytes in response to a lipid-mobilizing factor produced by a cachexia-inducing murine adenocarcinoma was inhibited by eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) with a Ki value of 104 microM. The inhibitory effect was strictly structurally specific, since other related fatty acids of both the (n-3) and (n-6) series were ineffective as inhibitors of the lipolytic process. Induction of lipolysis by both salbutamol and ACTH was also inhibited by EPA, suggesting that the effect is exerted on a step central to the process of lipolysis. Lipolysis induced with the tumour lipid-mobilizing factor was associated with a prolonged elevation of the intracellular level of cyclic AMP in adipocytes, in contrast with ACTH and salbutamol. The elevation of adipocyte cyclic AMP in response to the tumour lipid-mobilizing factor and lipolytic hormones was inhibited by EPA. In vivo, administration of pure EPA to weight losing mice bearing the MAC16 adenocarcinoma completely prevented weight loss and tumour growth rate. In contrast both the other (n-3) fatty acid present in fish oil, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and linoleic acid were ineffective in inhibiting weight loss or the growth of the MAC16 tumour. This suggests that inhibition of tumour lipolytic activity accounts for the anticachectic effect of EPA, and that a correlation may exist between the inhibition of cachexia and the inhibition of tumour growth.