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Human diploid fibroblasts growth normally in medium containing physiological concentrations of the naturally occurring dipeptide carnosine (beta-alanyl-L-histidine). These concentrations are cytotoxic to transformed and neoplastic cells lines in modified Eagle medium (MEM), whereas these cells grow vigorously in Dulbecco's modified Eagle medium (DMEM) containing carnosine. This difference is due to the presence of 1 mM sodium pyruvate in DMEM. Seven human cell lines and two rodent cell lines were tested and all are strongly inhibited by carnosine in the absence of pyruvate. Experiments with HeLa cells show that anserine is similar to carnosine, but D-carnosine and homocarnosine are without effect. Also, the non-essential amino acids alanine and glutamic acid contribute to the effect of pyruvate in preventing carnosine toxicity, and oxaloacetate and alpha-ketoglutarate can substitute for pyruvate. We have used mixtures of normal MRC-5 fibroblasts and HeLa cells to demonstrate that 20 mM carnosine can selectively eliminate the tumour cells. This has obvious implications which might be exploited in in vivo and in vitro studies. Carnosine is known to react strongly with aldehyde and keto groups of sugars by Amadori reaction, and we propose that it depletes certain glycolysis intermediates. It is well known that tumour cells are more dependent on glycolysis than normal cells. A reduction of glycolysis intermediates by carnosine may deplete their energy supply, but this effect is totally reversed by pyruvate.