Recent evidence suggests a role for sigma (sigma) binding sites in maintenance of cell growth and/or proliferation. The present study examines, for the first time, the effect of sigma binding site ligands on in vitro growth of tumour cells derived from human mammary adenocarcinoma (MCF-7, MDA) and colon carcinoma (LIM 1215, WIDr), and melanoma (Chinnery). Addition of the sigma ligands haloperidol, reduced haloperidol, 1,3-di(2-tolyl)guanidine (DTG), (+)- and (-)-N-allylnormetazocine (SKF 10,047), (+)- and (-)-pentazocine and rimcazole at 6.25, 12.5, 25, 50, 100 microM at the beginning of culture or 24 h later, inhibited cell proliferation in a dose-dependent manner. Light microscopy revealed cell detachment, rounding and cell death. The potency of sigma ligands on melanoma cells was rimcazole > reduced haloperidol > haloperidol = (+)-pentazocine, whereas DTG and (+)- and (-)-SKF 10,047 and (-)-pentazocine had no effect even at 100 microM. In contrast, in MCF-7 cells, rimcazole > reduced haloperidol > haloperidol > (-)-pentazocine > DTG > (+)-pentazocine > (+)-SKF 10,047 > (-)-SKF 10,047. For colon cancer cells, reduced haloperidol > DTG > haloperidol = (-)-pentazocine = (+)-pentazocine = (+)-SKF 10,047. Of all the ligands tested, rimcazole and reduced haloperidol were the most potent inhibitors of cell proliferation. With the exception of one slow-growing colon cancer cell line (LIM 1215), the order of sensitivity of various cell lines to reduced haloperidol, SFK 10,047, DTG, haloperidol and (+)- and (-)-pentazocine was colon carcinoma > mammary adenocarcinoma > melanoma, whereas to rimcazole, the sensitivities of mammary adenocarcinoma and melanoma cells were comparable. The effect of sigma ligands in MCF-7 and melanoma cells was not due to blockade of dopamine D1 and D2 receptors, serotonin (5-HT2) receptors, N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA)/phencyclidine receptors, beta-adrenoceptors or opioid receptors, since 100 microM SCH 23390, raclopride, mianserin, (+)-MK-801, propranolol and 1 microM naloxone respectively, were ineffective. However, mianserin and raclopride were inhibitory to melanoma cells and one colon carcinoma cell line, respectively. Taken together, the results are consistent with the recent observation that sigma binding sites may play a role in cell growth and/or cell proliferation.