Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs have potential for use in the prevention and/or treatment of colorectal cancer. We have studied the cytotoxic effect of a specific COX-2 inhibitor, celecoxib, against LLC, HCA-7, and HCT-15 cells grown in cell culture and have compared these results with its effect on HCA-7 cells grown as xenografts in nude mice. "High-dose" celecoxib (>20 microM) reduced the viability of all three cell lines in vitro as measured by the 3-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyltetrazolium bromide assay. Flow cytometric analysis demonstrated that this loss of viability was attributable to the induction of apoptosis. Significantly, concentrations of the drug <10 microM had no effect on cell viability in vitro. The cytotoxic effects of high-dose celecoxib were independent of COX-2 inhibition because similar effects were observed in cox-2 (+/+), cox-2 (+/-) and cox-2 (-/-) fibroblasts. A plasma concentration of 2.3+/-0.7 microM was achieved when celecoxib (1250 mg/kg of chow) was fed to animals ad libitum. Despite a lack of toxicity at 2-3 microM celecoxib in vitro, there was attenuation of HCA-7 xenograft growth in vivo. Celecoxib had no effect on apoptosis, cell division, or the epithelial architecture of the normal gut in treated mice. These results support the need for additional clinical evaluation of celecoxib for treatment and/or prevention of colorectal cancer in humans.