Adrenocortical carcinoma is an uncommon malignancy that is usually fatal within a short time after diagnosis. We have investigated the effects on the growth and survival of SW-13 human adrenal carcinoma cells in culture of some currently used and some potentially new agents in the treatment of adrenal cancer. Established drugs tested were mitotane, cisplatin, etoposide, 5-fluorouracil, and suramin. Other agents studied included adenine arabinofuranoside, cytosine arabinofuranoside, 2-methoxyestradiol, and paclitaxel. The most potent chemotherapeutic agents in this system were paclitaxel and 2-methoxyestradiol, with EC (50) of 1.8x10 (-8) and 3.3x10 (-7) M, respectively. Cytosine arabinofuranoside and cisplatin both had the same EC (50) of 7.0x10 (-7) M, and etoposide 1.1x10 (-6) M. All the other agents tested required much higher doses for effect, including mitotane, the current most commonly used chemotherapy for adrenal cancer, with an EC (50) of 3.3x10 (-4) M. These data suggest that paclitaxel, 2-methoxyestradiol, and cytosine arabinofuranoside should be further evaluated for their potential in the chemotherapy of adrenal carcinoma.