(-)-Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a catechin polyphenol compound, represents the main ingredient of green tea extract. Although EGCG has been shown to be growth inhibitory in a number of tumor cell lines, it is not clear whether the effect is cancer-specific. In this study we compared the effect of EGCG on the growth of SV40 virally transformed WI38 human fibroblasts (WI38VA) with that of normal WI38 cells. The IC50 value of EGCG was estimated to be 120 and 10 microM for WI38 and WI38VA cells, respectively. Thus, EGCG at 40 microM completely inhibited the growth of WI38VA cells, but had little or no inhibitory effect on the growth of WI38 cells. Similar differential growth inhibition was also observed between a human colorectal cancer cell line (Caco-2), a breast cancer cell line (Hs578T) and their respective normal counterparts. EGCG at a concentration range of 40-200 microM induced a significant amount of apoptosis in WI38VA cultures, but not in WI38 cultures, as determined by terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase assay. After exposure to EGCG at 200 microM for 8 h, more than 50% of WI38VA cells in a confluent culture became apoptotic. In contrast, less than 1% of WI38 cells displayed apoptotic labeling under the same condition. EGCG did not affect the serum-induced expression of c-fos and c-myc genes in normal WI38 cells. However, it significantly enhanced their expression in transformed W138VA cells. It is possible that differential modulation of certain genes, such as c-fos and c-myc, may cause differential effects of EGCG on the growth and death of cancer cells.