We used newly established cervical dysplasia-derived cell lines to elucidate a molecular mechanism of the preventive action of beta-carotene in cervical multi-step carcinogenesis. Liposomal beta-carotene was added to the culture medium for human cervical dysplasia cell lines, CICCN-2 from cervical intraepithelial neoplasia grade I (CIN I), CICCN-3 from CIN II, and CICCN-4 from CIN III, and human cervical carcinoma-derived cell lines such as CICCN-6, CICCN-18, and HeLa cells. beta-Carotene (10 mumol/L) induced significant growth retardation in three cervical dysplasia cell lines but not in three cervical carcinoma-derived cell lines. Binding activities of epidermal growth factor (EGF) and cellular amounts of either messenger RNA for EGF receptor gene or EGF receptor protein were all highest in CICCN-4 cells. Cell surface binding, as well as internalization, of 125I-labeled EGF was rapidly reduced after beta-carotene treatment in dysplasia cell lines and 170-kD protein bands of EGF receptor disappeared from protein immunoblots at day 3 of the treatment. Cellular amounts of EGF receptor messenger RNA remained constant until day 3 of the treatment and were substantially reduced after day 7. Chromatin condensations, morphologic evidence for apoptotic cell death, were observed at day 1 by staining. From these results, we contend that prevention of cervical carcinogenesis by beta-carotene is due to induction of apoptosis in cervical dysplastic cells, which are premalignant cells in cervical multi-step carcinogenesis, via down-regulation of EGF receptor protein.