Flavopiridol (HMR 1275) has been identified recently as a novel antineoplastic agent in the primary screen conducted by the Developmental Therapeutics Program, National Cancer Institute. Flavopiridol inhibits most cyclin-dependent kinases (cdks) and displays unique anticancer properties. Here, we investigated whether this compound was effective against head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC). Exposure of HNSCC cells to flavopiridol diminished cdc2 and cdk2 activity and potently inhibited cell proliferation (IC50 43-83 nM), which was concomitant with the appearance of cells with a sub-G1 DNA content. Moreover, DNA fragmentation and TUNEL (terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated nick end labeling) reaction confirmed that flavopiridol induces apoptosis in all cell lines, even on certain HNSCC cells that are insensitive to apoptosis to DNA-damaging agents (gamma-irradiation and bleomycin). A tumorigenic HNSCC cell line was used to assess the effect of flavopiridol in vivo. Treatment (5 mg/kg per day, intraperitoneally) for 5 d led to the appearance of apoptotic cells in the tumor xenografts and caused a 60-70% reduction in tumor size, which was sustained over a period of 10 wk. Flavopiridol treatment also resulted in a remarkable reduction of cyclin D1 expression in HNSCC cells and tumor xenografts. Our data indicate that flavopiridol exerts antitumor activity in HNSCC, and thus it can be considered a suitable candidate drug for testing in the treatment of refractory carcinomas of the head and neck.