The irreversible destiny of apoptosis in its early stage might play a critical role in the apoptosis of human acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) cell line induced by all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA). To characterize protein alterations during the apoptosis-initiation phase and to understand the metabolic status at that time, we investigated the protein profiles in the apoptosis-initiation phase of APL cell line HL-60 by proteomic analysis. ATRA-withdrawal was conducted to demonstrate that there was committed initiation phase of apoptosis triggered by 10(-6) M ATRA at day 3. Only after that time point, ATRA-treated cells irreversibly went to apoptosis. Also at that time point, the positive regulators of apoptosis such as STAT3 increased at protein level, whereas negative regulators (Bcl-2 and p-STAT3) decreased. In addition, caspase-3 also increased after that time. Furthermore, comparative proteomic analysis was utilized to examine the protein expression profiles during the initiation stage of apoptosis. Our results showed 12 upregulated and 7 downregulated proteins experiencing twofold alteration, including key regulators of signal transduction such as G-proteins and nucleic receptors, proteins related with metabolism, oxidation and reduction, proteins associated with the nucleus and cytoskeleton-related proteins. Some of them could be positive modulators to trigger apoptosis, whereas others could contribute to intracellular defense against apoptosis induced by exogenous triggers. The results above suggest that there is a subtle balance between apoptosis and the intracellular defense against apoptosis. Once the balance is disturbed, cells would irreversibly initiate to undergo the execution of apoptosis.