Histone deacetylase inhibitors are a new class of anticancer agents that inhibit cancer cell proliferation and induce apoptosis and cell cycle arrest in various cancer cells. Recently, we identified ZYJ-34c, a modified histone deacetylase inhibitor that showed significantly higher antitumor activity in vivo than the FDA-approved drug suberoylanilide hydroxamic acid. We aimed to investigate its exact mechanism of action. Activity of ZY-34c against human erythroleukemic (K562) cells, human myeloid leukemia (HL-60) cells, and primary leukemic cells were investigated in vitro using proliferation assays, cell cycle assays, apoptosis assays, RNA interference, promoter acetylation assays, and assays of transcription of related molecules. ZYJ-34c strongly inhibited the proliferation of leukemia cells compared with suberoylanilide hydroxamic acid. Primary leukemic cells isolated from patients with acute myeloid leukemia were more sensitive to ZYJ-34c. The 50% growth-inhibitory concentrations of ZYJ-34c and suberoylanilide hydroxamic acid were 2.95±0.75 and 4.45±0.29 μmol/l for K562 cells treated for 48 h, respectively. We found that ZYJ-34c caused more significant G1 cell cycle arrest than suberoylanilide hydroxamic acid, in a time-dependent manner. ZYJ-34c-induced hyperacetylation of histone H3 and H4 around the promoter region of p21. P21 RNA interference markedly impaired ZYJ-34c-induced or suberoylanilide hydroxamic acid-induced G1 cell cycle arrest. In addition, levels of bcr-abl mRNA and protein in K562 cells decreased after treatment with either suberoylanilide hydroxamic acid or ZYJ-34c; moreover, ZYJ-34c had a higher inhibition activity. ZYJ-34c could represent a novel pharmacological agent with potential benefit for patients with leukemia.