BACKGROUND AND AIM: Recently, we reported on the beneficial clinical effects of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in patients with primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) who were unresponsive to ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA). In this study we examined the effect of EPA on rat hepatocytes in primary culture. METHODS: Hepatocytes were isolated from rat liver by perfusion of collagenase and cultured with or without EPA. Cell damage induced by chenodeoxycholic acid (CDCA) was assessed by WST-8 assay and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) release. PGE(2) and LTB(4) concentrations in the culture medium were measured by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). cDNA was made from total RNA that was extracted from hepatocytes, and TaqMan polymerase chain reaction (PCR) was performed to assess the expression of CuZn and Mn superoxide dismutase (SOD) mRNA. RESULTS: When rat hepatocytes were cultured in the presence of EPA, the damage caused by CDCA was significantly decreased compared with cells cultured without EPA. Cytotoxicity significantly decreased in the presence of EPA. Furthermore, SOD mRNA expression was increased by adding EPA. These findings indicated that EPA protects cells by scavenging superoxide radicals ((*)O(2-)) mediated by SOD production. CONCLUSION: EPA has a direct protective effect on rat hepatocytes, which is in agreement with the clinical efficacy of EPA in PBC patients.