The antiproliferative properties of lycopene, the major tomato carotenoid, were compared with those of alpha- and beta-carotene. Lycopene, delivered in cell culture medium from stock solutions in tetrahydrofuran, strongly inhibited proliferation of endometrial (Ishikawa), mammary (MCF-7), and lung (NCI-H226) human cancer cells with half-maximal inhibitory concentration of 1-2 microM; alpha- and beta-carotene were far less effective inhibitors. For example, in Ishikawa cells, a 4-fold higher concentration of alpha-carotene or a 10-fold higher concentration of beta-carotene was needed for the same order of growth suppression. The inhibitory effect of lycopene was detected after 24 hours of incubation, and it was maintained for at least three days. In contrast to cancer cells, human fibroblasts were less sensitive to lycopene, and the cells gradually escaped growth inhibition over time. In addition to its inhibitory effect on basal endometrial cancer cell proliferation, lycopene also suppressed insulin-like growth factor-I-stimulated growth. Insulin-like growth factors are major autocrine/paracrine regulators of mammary and endometrial cancer cell growth. Therefore, lycopene interference in this major autocrine/paracrine system may open new avenues for research on the role of lycopene in the regulation of endometrial cancer and other tumors.