BACKGROUND: Primary cultures and subcultures of prostate epithelial cells (PEC) proliferate markedly, but rapidly loose secretory differentiated function and androgen responsiveness. Here, we investigated whether differentiation could be restored or preserved by using three-dimensional reaggregation cultures treated with retinoids and/or androgens. METHODS: PEC were cultured as monolayers or as reaggregation cultures on a rotatory shaker. Reaggregation cultures were also developed from freshly isolated cells. Morphology was evaluated microscopically. Expression of cytokeratins (CKbasal for basal cells and CK18 for luminal cells), E-cadherin, alpha- and beta-catenin, androgen receptor (AR), and prostate specific antigen (PSA) was evaluated by immunohistochemistry and/or Western blotting. Differentiated function was further evaluated by measurements of PSA in the medium and by reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reactions for AR, PSA, prostate specific membrane antigen, beta-microseminoprotein, and zinc-alpha 2-glycoprotein. Proliferation was evaluated by immunohistochemical staining for Ki-67. RESULTS: Monolayer cultures of PEC expressed CKbasal as well as CK18, a combination compatible with an intermediary amplifying population of epithelial cells. No expression of PSA could be detected, and all attempts to re-induce differentiation of PEC in classic two-dimensional culture systems failed. In reaggregation cultures of subcultured PEC, retinoids proved essential to maintain a compact three-dimensional structure. This effect was accompanied by increased levels of E-cadherin and of the catenins and by a shift in the cytokeratin expression pattern toward that typical for secretory differentiated cells (CK18 only). Even in the presence of androgens, however, PSA remained undetectable. Similar effects of retinoids were observed in reaggregation cultures of freshly prepared PEC, and in the latter cultures, the combination of androgens and retinoids maintained a low level of PSA secretion for at least 40 days. CONCLUSIONS: A combination of retinoids and androgens is able to preserve, for a prolonged period of time, some degree of secretory differentiation in freshly isolated PEC maintained in reaggregation culture. The same combination is unable to restore secretory differentiation in subcultured PEC.