Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the third leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide, with few effective therapeutic options for advanced disease. At least 40% of HCCs are clonal, potentially arising from STAT3+, NANOG+ and OCT3/4+ liver progenitor/stem cell transformation, along with inactivation of transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta) signaling. Here we report significantly greater signal transducer and activator of transcription 3 (STAT3) and tyrosine phosphorylated STAT3 in human HCC tissues (P<0.0030 and P<0.0455, respectively) than in human normal liver. Further, in HCC cells with loss of response to TGF-beta, NSC 74859, a STAT3-specific inhibitor, markedly suppresses growth. In contrast, CD133(+) status did not affect the response to STAT3 inhibition: both CD133(+) Huh-7 cells and CD133(-) Huh-7 cells are equally sensitive to NSC 74859 treatment and STAT3 inhibition, with an IC(50) of 100 muM. Thus, the TGF-beta/beta2 spectrin (beta2SP) pathway may reflect a more functional 'stem/progenitor' state than CD133. Furthermore, NSC 74859 treatment of Huh-7 xenografts in nude mice significantly retarded tumor growth, with an effective dose of only 5 mg/kg. Moreover, NSC 74859 inhibited tyrosine phosphorylation of STAT3 in HCC cells in vivo. We conclude that inhibiting interleukin 6 (IL6)/STAT3 in HCCs with inactivation of the TGF-beta/beta2SP pathway is an effective approach in management of HCCs. Thus, IL6/STAT3, a major signaling pathway in HCC stem cell renewal and proliferation, can provide a novel approach to the treatment of specific HCCs.