We examined the activity of two metabolites of sulindac (a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug), sulindac sulfide and sulindac sulfone (exisulind, Prevatec), and a novel highly potent analog of exisulind (CP248) on a series of human prostate epithelial cell lines. Marked growth inhibition was seen with the BPH-1, LNCaP, and PC3 cell lines with IC50 values of about 66 microM, 137 microM, and 64 nM for sulindac sulfide, exisulind, and CP248, respectively. DNA flow cytometry and 4',6'-diamido-2-phenylindole (DAPI) staining indicated that these three compounds also induced apoptosis in all of these cell lines. Similar growth inhibition also was seen with the PrEC normal human prostate epithelial cell line, but these cells were resistant to induction of apoptosis at concentrations up to 300 microM, 1 mM, and 750 nM of sulindac sulfide, exisulind, and CP248, respectively. Derivatives of LNCaP cells that stably overexpress bcl-2 remained sensitive to growth inhibition and induction of apoptosis by these compounds. In vitro enzyme assays indicated that despite its high potency in inhibiting growth and inducing apoptosis, CP248, like exisulind, lacked cyclooxygenase (COX-1 and COX-2) inhibitory activity even at concentrations up to 10 mM. Moreover, despite variations of COX-1 and COX-2 expression, the three benign and malignant prostate cell lines showed similar sensitivity to growth inhibition and induction of apoptosis by these three compounds. Therefore, sulindac derivatives can cause growth inhibition and induce apoptosis in human prostate cancer cells by a COX-1 and -2 independent mechanism, and this occurs irrespective of androgen sensitivity or increased expression of bcl-2. These compounds may be useful in the prevention and treatment of human prostate cancer.