Derivatives of camptothecins, topoisomerase I inhibitors and 7-hydroxystaurosporine (UCN-01), a protein kinase C (PKC) inhibitor and cell cycle checkpoint abrogator, are promising anticancer drugs. We characterized the apoptotic response to camptothecin and UCN-01 for the 8 human breast carcinoma cell lines (MCF-7, MCF-7/ADR, T47D, HS578T, BT549, MDA-N, MDA MB231, MDA435) from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Anticancer Drug Screen. MCF-7 and T47D cells exhibited marked resistance to apoptosis, whereas MCF-7/ADR (NCI/ADR-RES) and HS578T cells exhibited the most pronounced apoptotic response. Apoptotic response was not correlated with growth inhibition measured by sulforhodamine B (SRB) assay, indicating that apoptosis is not the only mechanism of drug-induced cell death. Measurements of topoisomerase I levels and cleavage complexes and of PKC isoforms demonstrated that primary target inhibition was not correlated with apoptotic response. Several key apoptotic pathways were evaluated. Only MCF-7 cells had wild-type p53, indicating that p53 is not required for drug-induced apoptosis. MCF-7 cells also showed the highest MDM-2 expression (along with T47D cells, which were also resistant to apoptosis). Bcl-2, Mcl-1 and caspases 2 and 3 protein levels varied widely, whereas Bax expression was comparable among cell lines. Interestingly, Bcl-2, Mcl-1 and Bcl-X(L) cumulative expressions were inversely correlated with apoptotic response. Our results provide a comparative molecular characterization for the breast cancer cell lines of the NCI Anticancer Drug Screen and demonstrate the diversity of cellular responses to drugs (apoptosis vs. cell cycle arrest) and the importance of multifactorial analyses for modulating/predicting the apoptotic response to chemotherapy.