The possible difference between lovastatin (mevinolin, MK-803), simvastatin (MK-733) and pravastatin (CS-514), all chemically-related competitive inhibitors of 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl-coenzyme A (HMG-CoA) reductase, were tested in the human hepatoma cell line Hep G2, which is often used as a model for the human hepatocyte. After an 18-hr incubation of the cells with the drugs, pravastatin (IC50 = 1900 nM) was less potent than simvastatin and lovastatin (IC50 = 34 and 24 nM, respectively) in inhibiting the sterol synthesis. As a consequence of this inhibition, the HMG-CoA reductase mRNA levels and squalene synthase activity, both negatively-regulated by sterols, were increased equally by simvastatin and lovastatin, whereas the induction by pravastatin was much less. In contrast, there were fewer differences between the compounds in inhibiting HMG-CoA reductase activity, when assayed directly in Hep G2 cell homogenates (IC50 values = 18, 61 and 95 nM for simvastatin, lovastatin and pravastatin, respectively). Moreover, in experiments with human hepatocytes in primary culture the IC50 values for inhibition of the cholesterol synthesis by simvastatin and pravastatin were of the same order of magnitude (23 and 105 nM, respectively). The results are therefore explained as follows: the three drugs act in the same way within the Hep G2 cell in terms of inhibiting HMG-CoA reductase and their subsequent effect on the feedback regulation of the cholesterol synthesis, i.e. increasing squalene synthase and HMG-CoA reductase mRNA. However, pravastatin seems to be less able to enter the cells compared with simvastatin and lovastatin, possibly because of the higher hydrophobicity of the latter compounds. The observation with human hepatocytes suggests that in Hep G2 cells a specific hepatic transporter is missing. On one hand the human hepatoma cell line Hep G2 has proved to be a good model for the study of the feedback regulation of enzymes of the cholesterol biosynthetic pathway such as HMG-CoA reductase and squalene synthase, but, on the other hand seems to be less suitable as a model for the study of specific uptake of drugs, e.g. the vastatins, in human hepatocytes.