Many lung cancer cell lines are resistant to the growth inhibitory effects of retinoids. However, some small-cell lung cancer cell lines were inhibited by all trans-retinoic acid (ATRA) in serum-free medium. We compared the responses of seven non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) cell lines to ATRA in serum-free medium and in medium supplemented with delipidized serum. Whereas the growth of four cell lines was inhibited more in serum-free medium, the growth of the Calu-1 cell line was stimulated by ATRA in a dose-dependent fashion with a maximum at 10(-8) M. Delipidized serum (>2.5%) but not bovine serum albumin (0.15%) suppressed growth stimulation by ATRA. Transcripts of RA receptors RARalpha and RARgamma but not of RARbeta were detected in Calu-1 cells. Receptor expression, the formation of a complex among receptors and a RA-responsive element (RARE), and the transcriptional activation RARE were not suppressed by serum. Natural retinoids and synthetic receptor class- or subtype-selective retinoid agonists, which activated RARs and RXRs for gene transcription from a RARE, and a RAR antagonist (CD2366), which was unable to do so, stimulated the growth of Calu-1 cells in serum-free medium but not in serum-containing medium. Both ATRA and CD2366 enhanced the transcriptional activation of an Activator Protein-1 (AP-1)-luciferase reporter construct in serum-free medium but not in delipidized serum. Transcriptional activation of the RARE by ATRA occurred both in the presence or absence of delipidized serum. These results demonstrate that retinoid-induced growth stimulation of Calu-1 cells is associated with enhanced AP-1 transactivation but not with RARE transactivation.