The growth inhibitory effect of tumour promoters on human leukaemia and lung cancer cell lines was examined using the [3-(4,5 dimethylthiazol)-2, 5-diphenyl-tetrazolium bromide (MTT) assay. The four cell lines used were the K562 human leukaemia cell line, its adriamycin (ADM)-resistant subline (K562/ADM), which shows the mdr phenotype, PC-9 (a human lung adenocarcinoma cell line) and its cisplatin (CDDP)-resistant subline (PC-9/CDDP), which does not show the mdr phenotype. Phorbol 12-tetradecanoate-13-acetate (TPA) and the TPA-type tumour promoters, aplysiatoxin and debromoaplysiatoxin, inhibited the growth of the two parental cell lines, K562 and PC-9. The non-TPA-type tumour promoter, okadaic acid, also inhibited the growth of the two parental cell lines in a dose-dependent manner. TPA-type and okadaic acid inhibited the growth of K562/ADM more weakly than that of K562, and showed no growth inhibition in PC-9/CDDP. Anhydrodebromoaplysiatoxin, an inactive derivative of the TPA-type tumour promoter, could suppress the growth of K562 and K562/ADM only at high concentration (more than 50 pM) and it showed similar growth inhibitory effects on the two cell lines. Okadaic acid tetramethyl ether, the inactive form of the non-TPA-type tumour promoter did not inhibit the growth of any of the cell lines. The growth inhibitory effect of these compounds was well correlated with their tumour-promoting activity. A study of the accumulation of okadaic acid revealed that the amount of 3H-okadaic acid in K562/ADM and PC-9/CDDP was similar to that in their parental cells indicating that cross-resistance to this tumour promoter in the drug-resistant cell lines is not due to a difference in the amount of drug accumulated in sensitive and resistant cells. These results suggest the presence of another common mechanism for resistance to ADM and CDDP as well as to TPA- or non-TPA-type tumour promoters.