The aromatic fatty acid phenylacetate, a common metabolite of phenylalanine, shows promise as a relatively non-toxic drug for cancer treatment. This slowly metabolized fatty acid alters tumor cell lipid metabolism causing, among other effects, inhibition of protein prenylation critical to malignant growth. In pursuit of more potent analogues, we have examined the activity of related compounds against tumor cell lines established from patients with advanced prostatic carcinoma, glioblastomas, and malignant melanoma. Like phenylacetate, derivatives containing alpha-carbon or ring substitutions induced cytostasis and phenotypic reversion at non-toxic concentrations. Potency was correlated with the degree of calculated lipophilicity of the aromatic fatty acid, and the extent of inhibition of protein prenylation. Remarkably, a parallel cytostatic activity was reported in embryonic plant cells, which respond to phenylacetate and its analogues in the same concentration range and the same rank order of lipophilicity. These data suggest that phenylacetate and its analogues may act through common mechanisms to inhibit the growth of vastly divergent, undifferentiated cell types, and provide a basis for the development of new agents for the treatment of human malignancies.