1. The possible mechanisms of the antiproliferative and apoptotic effects of curcumin (diferuloylmethane), a polyphenol in the spice turmeric, on vascular smooth muscle cells were studied in rat aortic smooth muscle cell line (A7r5). 2. The proliferative response was determined from the uptake of [3H]-thymidine. Curcumin (10(-6)-10(-4) M) inhibited serum-stimulated [3H]-thymidine incorporation of both A7r5 cells and rabbit cultured vascular smooth muscle cells in a concentration-dependent manner. Cell viability, as determined by the trypan blue dye exclusion method, was unaffected by curcumin at the concentration range 10(-6) to 10(-5) M in A7r5 cells. However, the number of viable cells after 10(-4) M curcumin treatment was less than the basal value (2 x 10(5) cells). 3. To analyse the various stages of the cell cycle, [3H]-thymidine incorporation into DNA was determined every 3 h. After stimulation with foetal calf serum, quiescent A7r5 cells started DNA synthesis in 9 to 12 h (G1/S phase), then reached a maximum at 15 to 18 h (S phase). Curcumin (10(-6)-10(-4) M) added during either the G1/S phase or S phase significantly inhibited [3H]-thymidine incorporation. 4. Following curcumin (10(-6)-10(-4) M) treatment, cell cycle analysis utilizing flow cytometry of propidium iodide stained cells revealed a G0/G1 arrest and a reduction in the percentage of cells in S phase. Curcumin at 10(-4) M also induced cell apoptosis. It is suggested that curcumin arrested cell proliferation and induced cell apoptosis, and hence reduced the [3H]-thymidine incorporation. 5. The apoptotic effect of 10(-4) M curcumin was also demonstrated by haematoxylin-eosin staining, TdT-mediated dUTP nick end labelling (TUNEL), and DNA laddering. Curcumin (10(-4) M) induced cell shrinkage, chromatin condensation, and DNA fragmentation. 6. The membranous protein tyrosine kinase activity stimulated by serum in A7r5 cells was significantly reduced by curcumin at the concentration range 10(-5) to 10(-4) M. On the other hand, the cytosolic protein kinase C activity stimulated by phorbol ester was reduced by 10(-4) M curcumin, but unaffected by lower concentrations (10(-6)-10(-5) M). 7. The levels of c-myc, p53 and bcl-2 mRNA were analysed using a reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) technique. The level of c-myc mRNA was significantly reduced by curcumin (10(-5)-10(-4) M) treatment. And, the level of bcl-2 mRNA was significantly reduced by 10(-4) M curcumin. However, the alteration of the p53 mRNA level by curcumin (10(-5)-10(-4) M) treatment did not achieve significance. The effects of curcumin on the levels of c-myc and bcl-2 mRNA were then confirmed by Northern blotting. 8. Our results demonstrate that curcumin inhibited cell proliferation, arrested the cell cycle progression and induced cell apoptosis in vascular smooth muscle cells. Curcumin may be useful as a template for the development of drugs to prevent the pathological changes of atherosclerosis and post-angioplasty restenosis. Our results suggest that the antiproliferative effect of curcumin may partly be mediated through inhibition of protein tyrosine kinase activity and c-myc mRNA expression. And, the apoptotic effect may partly be mediated through inhibition of protein tyrosine kinase activity, protein kinase C activity, c-myc mRNA expression and bcl-2 mRNA expression.