Clusterin is a widely expressed, well conserved, secreted glycoprotein, which is highly induced in tissues regressing as a consequence of apoptotic cell death in vivo. It has recently been shown that clusterin expression is only confined to surviving cells following the induction of apoptosis in vitro, suggesting that it is involved in cell survival rather than death. In the hypothesis that clusterin may be implicated in cellular responses to stress, clusterin gene expression was analyzed in the A431 human epidermoid cancer cell line following heat shock and oxidative stress. Our results show that both a transient heat shock (20 min at 42 degrees C) and various oxidative stresses, including hydrogen peroxide, superoxide anion, hyperoxia and UVA exposure, induce a strong increase in clusterin mRNA levels as assessed by northern blot. Nuclear run-on analysis suggests that transcriptional activation is involved in inducing clusterin mRNA in response to heat shock. Using pulse-chase analysis of control and heat shocked cells, it is shown that clusterin mRNA is translated and secreted, thus resulting in increased extracellular levels of the protein following heat shock. To investigate the function of clusterin in response to these stresses, clusterin anti-sense transfectants that stably express virtually no clusterin at the mRNA and protein level were generated in A431 cells. These anti-sense transfectants are shown to be highly sensitive to apoptotic cell death induced by heat shock or oxidative stress compared with wild-type A431 cells or control transfectants. Taken together, our results show that clusterin gene expression is induced in response to heat shock and oxidative stress in human A431 cells, and confers cellular protection against heat shock and oxidative stress.