The relative sensitivity of neoplastic cells to DNA damaging agents is a key factor in cancer therapy. In this paper, we show that pretreatment of Burkitt's lymphoma cell lines expressing the c-met protooncogene with hepatocyte growth factor (HGF) protects them from death induced by DNA damaging agents commonly used in tumour therapy. This protection was observed in assays based on morphological assessment of apoptotic cells and DNA fragmentation assays. The protection was dose- and time-dependent -- maximal protection requiring pre-incubation with 100 ng/ml HGF for 48 h. Western blotting analysis and flow cytometric studies revealed that HGF inhibited doxorubicin- and etoposide-induced decreases in the levels of the anti-apoptotic proteins Bcl-X(L), and to a lesser extent Bcl-2, without inducing changes in the pro-apoptotic Bax protein. Overall, these studies suggest that the accumulation of HGF within the microenvironment of neoplastic cells may contribute to the development of a chemoresistant phenotype.