BACKGROUND: Surface-expressed Na+/K+-ATPase (NaK) has been suggested to function as a non-canonical cardiotonic steroid-binding receptor that activates multiple signaling cascades, especially in cancer cells. By contrast, the current study establishes a clear correlation between the IC50in vitro growth inhibitory concentration in human cancer cells and the Ki for the inhibition of activity of purified human a1ß1 NaK. METHODS: The in vitro growth inhibitory effects of seven cardiac glycosides including five cardenolides (ouabain, digoxin, digitoxin, gitoxin, uzarigenin-rhamnoside, and their respective aglycone forms) and two bufadienolides (gamabufotalin-rhamnoside and hellebrin, and their respective aglycone forms) were determined by means of the MTT colorimetric assay and hellebrigenin-induced cytotoxic effects were visualized by means of quantitative videomicroscopy. The binding affinity of ten of the 14 compounds under study was determined with respect to human a1ß1, a2ß1 and a3ß1 NaK complexes. Lactate releases and oxygen consumption rates were also determined in cancer cells treated with these various cardiac glycosides. RESULTS: Although cardiotonic steroid aglycones usually display weaker binding affinity and in vitro anticancer activity than the corresponding glycoside, the current study demonstrates that the hellebrin / hellebrigenin pair is at odds with respect to this rule. In addition, while some cardiac steroid glycosides (e.g., digoxin), but not the aglycones, display a higher binding affinity for the a2ß1 and a3ß1 than for the a1ß1 complex, both hellebrin and its aglycone hellebrigenin display ~2-fold higher binding affinity for a1ß1 than for the a2ß1 and a3ß1 complexes. Finally, the current study highlights a common feature for all cardiotonic steroids analyzed here, namely a dramatic reduction in the oxygen consumption rate in cardenolide- and bufadienolide-treated cells, reflecting a direct impact on mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation. CONCLUSIONS: Altogether, these data show that the binding affinity of the bufadienolides and cardenolides under study is usually higher for the a2ß1 and a3ß1 than for the a1ß1 NaK complex, excepted for hellebrin and its aglycone form, hellebrigenin, with hellebrigenin being as potent as hellebrin in inhibiting in vitro cancer cell growth.