The mechanism by which kappa-opioid receptor (kappaor) modulated apoptosis was investigated in CNE2 human epithelial tumor cells. Induction of these cells to undergo apoptosis with staurosporine was associated with a massive increase in intracellular cAMP level. The inhibition of the increase in cAMP partially inhibited apoptosis as evidenced by a reduction of PARP and caspase-3 cleavage. Accordingly, a low but significant level of apoptosis is induced in these cells by the elevation of cAMP through the addition of forskolin and isobutylmethylxanthine. The existence of a cAMP-dependent and a cAMP-independent apoptotic pathway is therefore suggested. Receptor binding studies, RT-PCR experiments and Western blot analysis demonstrated the presence of type 1 kappaor in the CNE2 cells. Stimulation of kappaor in these cells resulted in the production of inositol (1,4,5)-trisphosphate, reduction of cAMP level and a marked enhancement of staurosporine-induced apoptosis. The potentiation of apoptosis by kappaor was prevented by inhibition of phospholipase C but was slightly enhanced by the presence of the active cAMP analogues, 8-CPT-cAMP and dibutyryl-cAMP. These data demonstrate for the first time that the phospholipase C pathway activated by type 1 kappaor expressed by cancer cells is involved in the potentiation of apoptosis.