Retinoids modulate several cell functions and especially inhibit the growth of tumor cells. Their biological activity is mediated by retinoic acid receptors (RARs), of which three subtypes (alpha, beta, gamma) have been identified. In human neuroblastoma (NB) reduced endogenous RAR-gamma expression was suggested to diminish the sensitivity for retinoids, to promote proliferation, and to contribute to the malignant phenotype. To correlate receptor selectivity with in vitro activity, we analysed the effect of six synthetic retinoids with selectivity for human RAR-alpha/beta/gamma on the human LAN-5 NB cell line and compared it with the natural compound all-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA). Apoptosis was determined by flow-cytometry using terminal-deoxynucleotidyl transferase to end-label DNA fragments in situ in apoptotic cells. The antagonist for RAR-beta/gamma CD2665 as well as the selective agonists for RAR-alpha CD336 and RAR-beta CD2019 were less effective in growth inhibition than ATRA. In contrast, the synthetic RAR-gamma selective agonists CD437 and CD2325 induced a concentration- and time-dependent antiproliferative effect, which was similar or even more pronounced than ATRA. In contrast to ATRA, the adition of CD437 and CD2325 did not induce morphological changes typical of NB cell maturation but resulted in morphological features consistent with the occurrence of programmed cell death. Flow-cytometric analysis showed that in contrast to ATRA the addition of CD 437 and CD 2325 results in progressive time-dependent increase of apoptotic cells (25.9% and 57.7% after 72 hours). In conclusion, our study demonstrates RAR-gamma selectively binding retinoids dramatically suppress NB cell growth, primarily by inducing programmed cell death rather than by cell differentiation. Since advanced or disseminated NB tumors endogenously express low levels of RAR-gamma and lack of apoptosis is involved in tumor progression, RAR-gamma selectively binding retinoids may be more appropriate retinoids for clinical trials in NB.