The objective of this study was to investigate the mechanisms by which tamoxifen modifies cholesterol metabolism in cellular models of liver metabolism, HepG2 cells and rat hepatocytes. The effect of tamoxifen on cholesterol and triglyceride-palmitate synthesis was measured using isotopomer spectral analysis (ISA) and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and compared with the effects of progesterone, estradiol, the antiestrogen ICI 182,780, and an oxysterol, 25-hydroxycholesterol (25OHC). Cholesterol synthesis in cells incubated in the presence of either [1-(13)C]acetate, [U-13C]glucose, or [4,5-(13)C]mevalonate for 48 hours was reduced in the presence of 10 micromol/L tamoxifen and 12.4 micromol/L 25OHC in both HepG2 cells and rat hepatocytes. The ISA methodology allowed a clear distinction between effects on synthesis and effects on precursor enrichment, and indicated that these compounds did not affect enrichment of the precursors of squalene. Progesterone was effective in both cell types at 30 micromol/L and only in HepG2 cells at 10 micromol/L. Estradiol and ICI 182,780 at 10 micromol/L did not inhibit cholesterol synthesis. None of the compounds altered the synthesis of triglyceride-palmitate in either cell type. Treatment of cells with tamoxifen produced accumulation of three sterol precursors of cholesterol, zymosterol, desmosterol, and delta8 cholesterol. This pattern of precursors indicates inhibition of delta24,25 reduction in addition to the previously described inhibition of delta8 isomerase. We conclude that tamoxifen is an effective inhibitor of the conversion of lanosterol to cholesterol in cellular models at concentrations comparable to those present in the plasma of tamoxifen-treated individuals. Our findings indicate that this mechanism may contribute to the effect of tamoxifen in reducing plasma cholesterol in humans.