Detection of caspase activation in situ by fluorochrome-labeled caspase inhibitors

Biotechniques. 2001 Sep;31(3):608-10, 612, 614, passim. doi: 10.2144/01313pf01.


Apoptosis is dependent on the activation of a group of proteolytic enzymes called caspases. Caspase activation can be detected by immunoblotting using caspase-specific antibodies or by caspase activity measurement employing pro-fluorescent substrates that become fluorescent upon cleavage by the caspase. Most of these methods require the preparation of cell extracts and, therefore, are not suitable for the detection of active caspases within the living cell. Using FAM-VAD-FMK, we have developed a simple and sensitive assay for the detection of caspase activity in living cells. FAM-VAD-FMK is a carboxyfluorescein (FAM) derivative of benzyloxycarbonyl-valine-alanine-aspartic acid-fluoromethyl ketone (zVAD-FMK), which is a potent broad-spectrum inhibitor of caspases. FAM-VAD-FMK enters the cell and irreversibly binds to activated caspases. Cells containing bound FAM-VAD-FMK can be analyzed by flow cytometry, fluorescence microscopy, or a fluorescence plate reader. Using FAM-VAD-FMK, we have measured caspase activation in live non-adherent and adherent cells. We show that FAM-VAD-FMK labeled Jurkat and HeLa cells that had undergone apoptosis following treatment with camptothecin or staurosporine. Non-stimulated negative control cells were not stained. Pretreatment with the general caspase inhibitor zVAD-FMK blocked caspase-specific staining in induced Jurkat and HeLa cells. Pretreatment of staurosporine-induced Jurkat cells with FAM-VAD-FMK inhibited affinity labeling of caspase-3, -6, and -7, blocked caspase-specific cell staining, and led to the inhibition of apoptosis. In contrast, the fluorescent control inhibitor FAM-FA-FMK had no effect. Measurement of caspase activation in 96-well plates showed a 3- to 5-fold increase in FAM-fluorescence in staurosporine-treated cells compared to control cells. In summary, we show that FAM-VAD-FMK is a versatile and specific tool for detecting activated caspases in living cells.

MeSH terms

  • Affinity Labels
  • Amino Acid Chloromethyl Ketones
  • Apoptosis / drug effects
  • Camptothecin / pharmacology
  • Caspase Inhibitors*
  • Caspases / metabolism*
  • Enzyme Activation
  • Enzyme Inhibitors*
  • Flow Cytometry
  • Fluoresceins
  • Fluorescent Dyes*
  • HeLa Cells
  • Humans
  • Jurkat Cells
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence
  • Staurosporine / pharmacology


  • Affinity Labels
  • Amino Acid Chloromethyl Ketones
  • Caspase Inhibitors
  • Enzyme Inhibitors
  • Fluoresceins
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • benzyloxycarbonyl-valyl-alanyl-(methyl)aspartic acid fluoromethyl ketone
  • 6-carboxyfluorescein
  • Caspases
  • Staurosporine
  • Camptothecin