1,25(OH)2D3 and two stereoisomers of retinoic acid, all trans and 9-cis retinoic acid, are regulators of cell proliferation and differentiation. The aim of this study was to evaluate the effects of a combination of 1,25(OH)2D3 and retinoic acid (all trans or 9-cis) on proliferation and cell differentiation of the human promyelocytic leukemia cell line HL60, and to test the reversibility of the induced differentiation. Cell proliferation was inhibited as expected by 1,25(OH)2D3 and all trans retinoic acid alone (IC50 of cell survival was 4 x 10(-7) M, 9 x 10(-6) M and 9 x 10(-7) M for 1,25(OH)2D3, all trans and 9-cis retinoic acid, respectively). Combination of 1,25(OH)2D3 and either form of retinoic acid resulted in a partially additive decrease in cell proliferation. 1,25(OH)2D3 induced a monocytic differentiation (100% CD14+ cells with 10(-7) M 1,25(OH)2D3), while retinoic acid led to a predominantly granulocytic differentiation (36 and 42% CD67+ cells with 10(-6) M all trans and 9-cis retinoic acid, respectively). Additive effects on differentiation were observed upon combination of subtherapeutical doses of the drugs, achieving a mainly monocytic population, demonstrating the dominant role of 1,25(OH)2D3 in determining the direction of differentiation. The effects on proliferation and differentiation of the solitary drugs were reversible, while the proliferation arrest and differentiation induced by the combination persisted and even progressed after withdrawal of the drugs. We conclude that 1,25(OH)2D3 and retinoic acid (all trans or 9-cis) exert additive effects on inhibition of proliferation and induction of cell differentiation of HL60 cells, leading to a persistent differentiation, even after drug withdrawal.