Background: Recent research has revealed that targeting mitochondrial bioenergetic metabolism is a promising chemotherapeutic strategy. Key to successful implementation of this chemotherapeutic strategy is the use of new and improved mitochondria-targeted cationic agents that selectively inhibit energy metabolism in breast cancer cells, while exerting little or no long-term cytotoxic effect in normal cells.Methods: In this study, we investigated the cytotoxicity and alterations in bioenergetic metabolism induced by mitochondria-targeted vitamin E analog (Mito-chromanol, Mito-ChM) and its acetylated ester analog (Mito-ChMAc). Assays of cell death, colony formation, mitochondrial bioenergetic function, intracellular ATP levels, intracellular and tissue concentrations of tested compounds, and in vivo tumor growth were performed.Results: Both Mito-ChM and Mito-ChMAc selectively depleted intracellular ATP and caused prolonged inhibition of ATP-linked oxygen consumption rate in breast cancer cells, but not in non-cancerous cells. These effects were significantly augmented by inhibition of glycolysis. Mito-ChM and Mito-ChMAc exhibited anti-proliferative effects and cytotoxicity in several breast cancer cells with different genetic background. Furthermore, Mito-ChM selectively accumulated in tumor tissue and inhibited tumor growth in a xenograft model of human breast cancer.Conclusions: We conclude that mitochondria-targeted small molecular weight chromanols exhibit selective anti-proliferative effects and cytotoxicity in multiple breast cancer cells, and that esterification of the hydroxyl group in mito-chromanols is not a critical requirement for its anti-proliferative and cytotoxic effect. © 2013 Cheng et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.