MCF-7 human breast cancer cells do not express caspase 3, thought by some to be a critical component of the apoptosis cascade. Nonetheless, both mock- and bcl-2-transfected MCF-7 cells undergo apoptosis after treatment with a variety of stimuli, including the DNA-cleaving antimitotic agent, neocarzinostatin (NCS). Transfection with bcl-2 shifts the concentration-response curve to NCS but does not change the phenomenology of apoptosis when it occurs. In both cases, NCS treatment results in condensation and fragmentation of MCF-7 cell nuclei and release of cytochrome c from the mitochondria to the cytosol. This apoptosis is accompanied by decreased levels of Bcl-2 and increased levels of Bax. Using a series of caspase inhibitors with overlapping specificities, enzyme-specific chromogenic substrates, and an antibody specific for activated caspase 7, we have determined that apoptosis in MCF-7 cells proceeds via sequential activation of caspases 9, 7 and 6. P21 is detected only after activation of caspase 7, and P53 is neither expressed at baseline nor up-regulated with apoptosis induction. This pathway bypasses the need for activated caspase 3 in these cells.