We have utilized an experimental model of cell lipid modification that allows study of the effect of a polyunsaturated fatty acid on the linked processes of cellular differentiation and growth arrest. HL-60 human leukemia cells were grown in media supplemented with 10 µm concentrations of the fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (22:6) or oleic acid (18:1) or in unsupplemented media. Gas chromatographic analysis of phospholipid extracts from HL-60 cells grown in unmodified or 18:1-supplemented media revealed 39% and 36% 18:1, 13 and 12% polyenoics, and 2 and 3% 22:6, respectively. In contrast, cells from 22:6-supplemented cultures had 22% 18:1, 18% total polyunsaturated fatty acids, and 10% 22:6. Retinoic acid was added to cells grown in the various media, and phorbol ester-induced superoxide generation, nitroblue tetrazolium reduction, and growth arrest were determined as measures of differentiation. Unmodified and 18:1-enriched cells showed inducible oxidative burst activity beginning at 48 h after the addition of retinoic acid and continuing to increase for 5 days. In marked contrast, the 22:6-enriched leukemia cells exhibited an increased oxidative activity as early as 24 h which is equivalent to about one division cycle time. G1/0-specific growth arrest was associated with the oxidative phenotypic differentiation in all three cell types. However, cells enriched with 22:6 demonstrated early growth arrest and differentiation considerably in advance of 18:1-modified or unmodified cells. An effect on the cellular differentiation process could be detected after even a brief 1-h exposure of the cells to 22:6. Therefore, a highly polyunsaturated fatty acid which is actively incorporated into membrane structures appreciably accelerates the differentiation process of this human neoplastic cell.


This investigation was supported by Grant CA31526 awarded by the National Cancer Institute, Department of Health and Human Services. Data analysis utilized the Clinfo system, Grant RR59 from the General Clinical Research Centers Program, Division of Research Resources, NIH.

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