Chemotherapy is commonly used to treat advanced oral squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and is known to kill cancer cells through apoptosis. Our hypothesis states that 5-fluorouracil (5FU) also kills cultured oral epithelial cells through programmed cell death or apoptosis. Cultured oral cancer cells were exposed to an optimum dose of 20 mg/ml of 5FU. Cells were analyzed for changes in cell cycle distribution and induction of cell death including apoptosis. Normal control, human papilloma virus-immortalized (PP), ATCC SCC cell line (CA1) and two primary oral SCC cell lines (CA3 and -4) were studied. Inhibition of apoptosis by a pan-caspase inhibitor was used. SYTO 11 flow cytometry showed increased apoptosis in all 5FU-treated cell cultures compared to untreated controls. The results show biological variation in apoptotic response. CA1 had the lowest apoptotic rate of the cancer cell lines at 1.5%. Next lowest was CA3, followed by CA4 and PP. In addition, alteration in the G1 and S phase fractions were found. Untreated CA1 showed 28% G1, 53% S compared to 43% G1, and 40% S of treated. We investigated the pathway of apoptosis using the pan-caspase inhibitor IDN-1529 by methylthiazolyl diphenyl tetrazolium bromide (MTT) colorimetric analysis. Results showed mild inhibition of cell death when cells were incubated with 50 microM IDN-1529 for 24 h. This suggests a probable caspase-dependent apoptotic pathway. In conclusion, our data suggest that 5FU induces oral cancer cell death through apoptosis and that biological variation exists between normal and cancer cells and between different types of cancer cells themselves. Our data indicate that cultures of a useful in vitro model for chemosensitivity assays are possible. Our results also suggest a caspase-dependent pathway for chemocytotoxicity in oral SCC.