The prolonged use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) has been shown to exert a chemopreventive effect in esophageal and other gastrointestinal tumors. The precise mechanism by which this occurs, however, is unknown. While the inhibition of COX-2 as a potential explanation for this chemopreventive effect has gained a great deal of support, there also exists evidence supporting the presence of cyclooxygenase-independent pathways through which NSAIDs may exert their effects. In this study, immunohistochemical analysis of 29 Barrett's epithelial samples and 60 esophageal adenocarcinomas demonstrated abundant expression of the COX-2 protein in Barrett's epithelium, but marked heterogeneity of expression in esophageal adenocarcinomas. The three esophageal adenocarcinoma cell lines, Flo-1, Bic-1, and Seg-1, also demonstrated varying expression patterns for COX-1 and COX-2. Indomethacin induced apoptosis in all three cell lines, however, in both a time- and dose-dependent manner. In Flo-1 cells, which expressed almost undetectable levels of COX-1 and COX-2, and in Seg-1, which expressed significant levels of COX-1 and COX-2, indomethacin caused upregulation of the pro-apoptotic protein Bax. The upregulation of Bax was accompanied by the translocation of mitochondrial cytochrome c to the cytoplasm, and activation of caspase 9. Pre-treatment of both cell lines with the specific caspase 9 inhibitor, z-LEHD-FMK, as well as the broad-spectrum caspase inhibitor, z-VAD-FMK, blocked the effect of indomethacin-induced apoptosis. These data demonstrate that induction of apoptosis by indomethacin in esophageal adenocarcinoma cells is associated with the upregulation of Bax expression and mitochondrial cytochrome c translocation, and does not correlate with the expression of COX-2. This may have important implications for identifying new therapeutic targets in this deadly disease.