OBJECTIVE: To examine the effects of valproic acid (VPA) on Notch1 expression and cancer cell proliferation in medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) cells. BACKGROUND: Other than surgery, there are no effective treatments for MTC, a neuroendocrine malignancy that frequently metastasizes. We have previously shown that over-expression of Notch1 in MTC cells inhibits cell growth and hormone production. VPA, a drug long used for the treatment of epilepsy, has recently been identified as a potential Notch1 activator. We hypothesized that VPA might activate Notch1 signaling in MTC cells, with antiproliferative effects. METHODS: Human MTC cells were treated with VPA (0-5 mM) and Western blotting was performed to measure levels of Notch1 pathway proteins and neuroendocrine tumor markers. After confirming that VPA is a Notch1 activator in MTC cells, we performed cell proliferation assay. Finally, to determine the mechanism of growth inhibition, we measured protein levels of various markers of apoptosis. RESULTS: Notch1 was absent in MTC cells at baseline. VPA treatment resulted in an increase in both full-length and active Notch1 protein. Notch1 activation with VPA suppressed 2 neuroendocrine tumor markers, ASCL1 and chromogranin A. Importantly, VPA inhibited the growth of MTC cells in a dose-dependent manner. Immunoblot analysis demonstrated caspase activation and poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase cleavage, indicating the induction of apoptosis. CONCLUSIONS: VPA activates Notch1 signaling in MTC cells and inhibits their growth by inducing apoptosis. As the safety of VPA in human beings is well established, a clinical trial using this drug to treat patients with advanced MTC could be initiated in the near future. © 2008 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.