Mifepristone, also known as RU 486, is a 19-norsteroid derivative. Currently, mifepristone is being tested in clinical trials on meningioma and breast cancer. In this study we analyzed whether mifepristone could inhibit the growth of human prostate cancer cells including androgen-insensitive (PC-3 and DU145) and androgen-sensitive (LNCaP) cell lines. At 1-nM concentration, mifepristone exhibited a marginal stimulatory action on LN-CaP and PC-3 cells. Nevertheless, a dose-dependent growth inhibition on those same cell lines was observed at concentrations of 1 microM and 10 microM. Twenty-day exposure to the clinically achievable concentration of 1 microM mifepristone resulted in consistent inhibition of all three cell lines studied. Furthermore, this in vitro growth inhibition was reflected in an in vivo nude mouse system. Mifepristone at the dosage of 4 mg/100 g body weight completely suppressed the growth of PC-3 tumors for 21 days, although this was followed by a growth rate similar to that of the control tumor. To understand the possible mechanism of mifepristone inhibition, PC-3 cells were exposed to mifepristone in comparison with dexamethasone (Dex), progesterone, and 5 alpha-dihydrotestosterone (DHT), each at 1-microM concentration. The results demonstrated that while both DHT and Dex alone had essentially no effect on cell growth, progesterone alone resulted in a 20% growth inhibition, while mifepristone had more than 60% inhibition with a 16-day exposure. At an equal concentration, the degree of growth inhibition of PC-3 cells by mifepristone or progesterone was partially diminished by simultaneous exposure to Dex. In conclusion, our results demonstrated that the growth of androgen-insensitive prostate cancer cells can be directly inhibited by mifepristone in cultures. This in vitro inhibition is reflected in xenografted tumors.