To investigate the effects of iron supplementation on hepatoma cell growth, cells from a human hepatoma cell line, PLC/PRF/5, were grown in RPMI 1640 supplemented with 0, 10 and 20 micrograms/ml of FeSO4 and harvested weekly. At the end of 6 wk culture, cell mass measured 9.6, 14.7 and 13.2 gm, respectively. Amounts of ferritin from these cell masses were 0 (undetectable), 0.89 and 2.27 micrograms/gm of cells. To study the effects of iron deprivation of hepatoma cells, three human hepatoma cell lines (PLC/PRF/5, Hep G2 and Hep 3B) were incubated in tissue culture medium mixed with graded amounts of an iron-chelating agent, desferoxamine, for 48 to 96 hr at 37 degrees C with 5% CO2. Over 50% cell death in PLC/PRF/5 cells and 30% to 50% cell death in Hep G2 and Hep 3B cells were observed 48 to 72 hr after exposure to desferoxamine. Addition of ferric citrate partially reversed the cytotoxic effect of desferoxamine. On the other hand, viability of control cells, human diploid cell line (WI 38), was not affected by desferoxamine. Even after 96 hr exposure to desferoxamine, cell death was only 2% to 4%. These results suggest that (a) iron enhances tumor cell growth, (b) iron induces increased ferritin synthesis by tumor cells in vitro and (c) iron depletion causes tumor cell death but has little effect on normal human diploid cells. These findings should be considered when designing treatment of patients with hepatoma. Iron oversupply in patients with cancer might enhance tumor growth and adversely affect cancer therapy. Iron chelation with desferoxamine might have a place in the treatment of patients with hepatoma in conjunction with other anticancer agents.