A long latent period of 20 to 30 years may be involved in the multistep process of carcinogenesis represented by prostatic intraepithelial neoplasia (PIN) in the prostate. It is, therefore, possible that progression to a malignant state could be blocked or reversed during this time. Retinoids not only have the ability to block steps in the process of carcinogenesis but they may also modulate or reverse some malignant characteristics of cancer cells. This study focuses on the ability of N-(4-hydroxyphenyl)-retinamide (4-HPR), a synthetic retinoid, to reverse malignant characteristics towards a normal phenotype, using the human prostate carcinoma cell line DU-145. These malignant characteristics include abnormal cell proliferation, intermediate filament expression, motility, invasion, and cell survival. Results show that 1 μM and 10 μM 4-HPR caused 31% and 96% inhibition of growth, while all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) produced similar effects at 10 and 100 μM, making 4-HPR ten times more effective than ATRA. While DU-145 cells show strong immunostaining for vimentin, treatment with 1 μM 4-HPR for eight days caused a marked decrease in vimentin staining. This was accompanied by a change from an elongated to an epithelial cell morphology. Densitometric analysis of Western blots for vimentin showed a 53% decrease in vimentin expression in 1 μM 4-HPR treated cells. Concomitant with the decrease in vimentin expression, cell motility and invasive ability also decreased by 32% and 52%, respectively. Growth inhibition was accompanied by DNA fragmentation and apoptosis. Exposure of cells to 1 μM 4-HPR caused a marked upregulation of nuclear retinoid receptors RARα and a detectable expression of RARγ. These results suggest that inhibition of growth and vimentin expression, and induction of apoptosis by 4-HPR in prostate cancer cells may occur via a receptor-mediated mechanism involving transrepression of AP-1 by retinoid receptors. We propose that vimentin may serve as a useful intermediate marker for early detection of prostate cancer in biopsy specimens and that 4-HPR may be effective in blocking several steps in prostate carcinogenesis as well as the progression of PIN to invasive carcinoma.