Retinoids have been investigated as potential agents for the prevention and treatment of human cancers. These compounds play an important role in regulating cell growth, differentiation, and apoptosis. 9-cis-Retinoic acid (9cRA) is a naturally occurring ligand with a high affinity for both the retinoic acid receptors and the retinoid X receptors. We hypothesized that treatment with 9cRA would prevent mammary tumorigenesis in transgenic mice that spontaneously develop mammary tumors. To test this hypothesis, C3(1)-SV40 T antigen (Tag) mice, which develop mammary tumors by the age of 6 months, were treated daily p.o. with vehicle or two different dose levels of 9cRA (10 or 50 mg/kg) from 5 weeks to 6 months of age. Tumor size and number were measured twice each week, and histological samples of normal and malignant tissue were obtained from each mouse at time of sacrifice. Our results demonstrate that 9cRA suppresses mammary tumorigenesis in C3(1)-SV40 Tag-transgenic mice. Time to tumor development was significantly delayed in treated mice; median time to tumor formation for vehicle-treated mice was 140 days versus 167 days for mice treated with 50 mg/kg 9cRA (P = 0.05). In addition, the number of tumors per mouse was reduced by >50% in mice treated with 9cRA (3.43 for vehicle, 2.33 for 10 mg/kg 9cRA, and 1.13 for 50 mg/kg 9cRA, P < or = 0.002). Histological analysis of the mammary glands from vehicle and treated mice demonstrated that 9cRA treatment also did not affect normal mammary gland development. Immunohistochemical staining of normal and malignant breast tissue and Western blot analysis demonstrated that SV40 Tag expression was not affected by treatment with retinoids. Single doses of 10 and 50 mg/kg resulted in peak plasma concentrations of 3.4 and 6.71 microM, respectively. Daily doses of 9cRA for 28 days resulted in plasma concentrations of 0.86 and 1.68 microM, respectively, concentrations consistent with that seen in humans treated with 9cRA in clinical trials. These results demonstrate that 9cRA suppresses mammary carcinogenesis in transgenic mice without any major toxicity and suggest that retinoids are promising agents for the prevention of human breast cancer.