The increasing incidence of melanoma and the poor responsiveness of disseminated disease to conventional treatments call for the development of new therapeutic approaches. Phenylacetate, a nontoxic differentiation inducer, can suppress the growth of other neuroectodermal tumors, i.e., gliomas, in laboratory models and in humans. This finding led us to explore the efficacy of phenylacetate and related aromatic fatty acids in melanoma. Phenylacetate and phenylbutyrate were found to a) induce selective cytostasis and maturation of cultured human melanoma cells, b) modulate the expression of genes implicated in tumor metastasis (type IV collagenase and tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinases-2) and immunogenicity (HLA class I); and c) enhance the efficacy of other agents of clinical interest, including retinoids, interferon-alpha, suramin, and 5-aza-2'-deoxycytidine. Reflecting on the phenotypic heterogeneity of melanoma, the degree of biologic alterations induced by phenylacetate/phenylbutyrate varied significantly among the tumor cell lines tested. Although losing invasive capacity and tumorigenicity in athymic mice, poorly differentiated cells exhibited only a marginal change in morphology, remained amelanotic, and resumed growth after treatment was discontinued. By contrast, treatment of melanoma cells that were in a more advanced stage of maturation resulted in profound alterations in cell growth, morphology, and pigmentation consistent with terminal differentiation. The in vitro antitumor activity was observed with nontoxic, pharmacologic concentrations of phenylacetate and phenylbutyrate, suggesting potential clinical use of these drugs in the treatment of melanomas.