The retinoid 4-(N-hydroxyphenyl)retinamide (4HPR, fenretinide) has both growth inhibitory and apoptosis-inducing effects on a number of cancer cell lines in vitro and in vivo and has been entered into a number of oncological trials. However, little is known about its mechanism(s) of action or its effects on normal cells such as fibroblasts. In this study, the effects of fenretinide on both epidermoid carcinoma cells of vulva (cell line A431) and normal human dermal fibroblasts, both as monolayers and also grown in 3D cell culture systems, have been investigated. The 3D cell culture system contained normal human fibroblasts embedded in a type I collagen gel with the carcinoma cells seeded on top of the collagen gel, which mimics the epidermoid carcinoma. Fenretinide significantly inhibited the rate of DNA synthesis of carcinoma cells, while there was little effect on fibroblasts on monolayers, at 10(-6)-10(-5) M, which are clinically attainable does. Fenretinide at 5 x 10(-6) M induced apoptosis characterised by cell shrinkage, membrane blebbing, nuclear condensation and/or fragmentation, and cell detachment in carcinoma cells, but not fibroblasts from monolayers. Fenretinide also reduced the viability of carcinoma cells in the 3D cell culture system without affecting fibroblasts. These data show that fenretinide may preferentially induce apoptosis in epidermoid carcinoma cells.