Differentiation inducers selected for their low cytotoxic and genotoxic potential could be of major value in chemoprevention and maintenance therapy. We focus here on phenylacetate, a naturally occurring plasma component recently shown to affect the growth and differentiation of established neoplasms in experimental models. The ability of phenylacetate to prevent carcinogenesis by the chemotherapeutic hypomethylating drug 5-aza-2'-deoxycytidine (5AzadC) was tested in vitro and in mice. Transient exposure of immortalized, but poorly tumorigenic ras-transformed 4C8 fibroblasts to 5AzadC resulted in neoplastic transformation manifested by loss of contact inhibition of growth, acquired invasiveness, and increased tumorigenicity in athymic mice. The latter was associated with elevation in ras expression and a decline in collagen biosynthesis. These profound phenotypic and molecular changes were prevented by a simultaneous treatment with phenylacetate. Protection from 5AzadC carcinogenesis by phenylacetate was: (a) highly efficient despite DNA hypomethylation by both drugs, (b) free of cytotoxic and genotoxic effects, (c) stable after treatment was discontinued, and (d) reproducible in vivo. Whereas athymic mice bearing 4C8 cells developed fibrosarcomas following a single i.p. injection with 5AzadC, tumor development was significantly inhibited by systemic treatment with nontoxic doses of phenylacetate. Phenylacetate and its precursor suitable for oral administration, phenylbutyrate, may thus represent a new class of chemopreventive agents, the efficacy and safety of which should be further evaluated.