The effect of etoposide and camptothecin, two topoisomerase inhibitors directed against topoisomerases II and I, respectively, was evaluated on human peripheral blood lymphocytes. Etoposide and camptothecin induced apoptosis of mitogen-activated but not resting CD4+ and CD8+ T lymphocytes. Cell sensitivity to these agents required G1 to S-phase transition of the cell cycle. Conversely, daunorubicin, an intercalating agent and topoisomerase II inhibitor, induced apoptosis of both resting and activated lymphocytes. Although etoposide and camptothecin induced CD95-ligand mRNA expression, drug-induced apoptosis of activated human lymphocytes was not inhibited by CD95 antagonists. Drug-induced cell death was also not inhibited by p55 TNFR-Ig fusion protein. Activation of the caspases cascade was suggested by the partial inhibitory effect of the tripeptide zVAD-fmk and documented by activation of caspase 3. Finally etoposide and camptothecin induced a rapid production of ceramide in activated but not resting peripheral blood lymphocytes, suggesting that ceramide might initiate the signaling apoptotic cascade in sensitive cells.