Retinoids, such as all-trans-retinoic acid and 9-cis-retinoic acid, are naturally occurring ligands of the nuclear retinoic acid receptors (RARs). In concert with binding of ligand, these receptors from heterodimers with the retinoic X receptor (RXR) and transactivate RAR/RXR-responsive genes. Retinoids can differentiate leukemic cell lines in vitro and induce clinically complete remissions in patients with acute promyelocytic leukemia. Synthetic ligands to the RAR and RXR receptors have been developed that selectively bind and activate RAR/RXR (TTAB) and RXR/RXR dimers (SR11217). We investigated the affect of these ligands, either alone or in combination, on in vitro growth and differentiation of cells from the HL-60, KG-1, THP-1, and WEHI-3 myeloid cell lines as well as on clonal growth of fresh myeloid leukemic blasts from patients. Clonal inhibition of proliferation of these cells was studied in soft agar cultures. Cells were plated in the presence of either one or a combination of retinoids at concentrations of 10(-5) to 10(-10) mol/L. TTAB inhibited 50% clonal growth at an effective dose (ED50) that was about 1,000-fold lower than the concentration of SR11217 required to achieve an ED50 for the same leukemic cells. Combination of both ligands at a variety of concentrations showed no synergistic effects. Superoxide production (nitroblue tetrazolium reduction) and CD11b expression as parameters of differentiation of HL-60 cells were also examined. Results paralleled those of clonal growth, with SR11217 being markedly less potent than TTAB. These results show that the ligand selective for RXR-homodimers has little effect on either inducing differentiation or inhibiting clonal growth of leukemic cells. The differentiating and antiproliferative effects of retinoids are mainly induced through RAR/RXR heterodimers, and development of therapeutic analogs should focus on this category of retinoids.