The effect of each of twelve mammalian lignan derivatives on the growth of human mammary tumor ZR-75-1 cells was examined. At a concentration less than 10 micrograms/ml, tumor cell growth was inhibited from 18-68%. The effect of 2,3-dibenzylbutane-1,4-diol(hattalin) was found to be strongest, inhibiting growth by 50% at a concentration (EC50) of 2.1 micrograms/ml. Hattalin inhibited membrane Na+, K(+)-ATPase of canine kidney cortex. It also inhibited the ATPase of the plasma membrane fraction from both cultured cells and a section of human breast cancer tissue at a concentration ranging from 0.5 to 2.0 mM. However, only a few percent of membrane ATPase from either ZR-75-1 cells or breast carcinoma tissue was inhibited by 2.0 mM of ouabain, suggesting that the target ATPase of hattalin was other than ouabain-sensitive ATPase. The relative incorporation of [3H]thymidine per 1 x 10(5) cells into the acid-precipitable fraction of ZR-75-1 cells was not affected by 1-50 micrograms/ml of hattalin, while a marked decrease resulted from 1-10 micrograms/ml of 5-fluorouracil (5-FU). These results suggest that the suppressive effect of hattalin on tumor cell growth may not occur through inhibition of DNA synthesis but rather partly by inhibition of the plasma membrane ATPase other than Na+ and K(+)-dependent ones.