Nonsteriodal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are among the most commonly used medications in the United States and elsewhere, mainly for the treatment of arthritis. The NSAID sulindac causes regression and prevents the recurrence of premalignant colonic polyps in patients with familial adenomatous polyposis and inhibits colon carcinogenesis in rodents. Sulindac and sulindac sulfone, a metabolite of sulindac that lacks cyclooxygenase (cox) inhibitory activity, also inhibit mammary carcinogenesis in rats. To obtain insights into the relevance of these findings to human breast cancer, we examined the mechanism of action of sulindac and its sulfide and sulfone metabolites on the normal human mammary epithelial cell line MCF-10F and the human breast cancer cell line MCF-7. Of the three compounds, the sulfide was the most potent inhibitor of cell growth, although the sulfone and sulfoxide were also active at higher concentrations. Treatment of MCF-10F and MCF-7 cells with 100 microM sulindac sulfide resulted in accumulation of cells in the G1 phase of the cell cycle and induction of apoptosis. Apoptosis occurred within 24 h as determined by the TUNEL assay and DNA laddering was observed at 72 h. The accumulation of cells in G1 was associated with decreased levels of expression of cyclin D1 but no effect was seen on the expression of CDK4 or the immediate early response gene c-jun. Treatment with sulindac sulfide caused a striking induction of the CDK inhibitor p21WAF1 in MCF-10F cells. The MCF-7 cell line expressed a high basal level of p21WAF1 which did not change significantly after drug treatment. The pro-apoptotic gene BAX was not induced in either MCF-10F or MCF-7 cells by sulindac sulfide. Stable overexpression of cyclin D1, which frequently occurs in breast cancers, did not protect mammary epithelial cells from inhibition by the sulfide. These studies suggest that this class of compounds warrants further study with respect to breast cancer prevention and treatment.