Apoptosis plays a central role in tumor development and it has been hypothesized that lack/failure of apoptosis leads to the development of tumors, including colon tumors. Thus, induction of apoptosis in tumor cells is an effective approach to the regulation of tumor growth. It has been shown by us and other investigators that various chemopreventive agents induce apoptosis and inhibit tumor growth. Identification of agents or combinations of agents that induce tumor cell apoptosis guides the development of novel agents for colon cancer treatment. Experiments were designed to assess the effectiveness of lovastatin, a 3-hydroxy-3-methyl glutaryl-CoA reductase inhibitor, and celecoxib a cyclooxygenase-2 inhibitor, individually or in combination on the induction of apoptosis in human HT-29 colon cancer cells. In addition, we studied the modulatory effect of lovastatin and celecoxib on lamin B levels, caspase-3 activity and expression in relationship to apoptosis in colon cancer cell lines. HT-29 cells exposed to various subtoxic levels of lovastatin or celecoxib or a combination of both were analyzed for apoptosis (by DAPI method), caspase-3 expression (immunoblot analysis) and caspase-3 activity (fluorimetric method). We found that: i) pretreatment with lovastatin (5-30 microM) induces apoptosis in HT-29 cells significantly only at high concentrations (> or = 20 microM) but not at low dose levels; ii) similarly, pretreatment with celecoxib produced apoptosis in colon cancer cells at high concentrations only (> or = 75 microM); iii) caspase-3 protein expression was moderately altered by the treatment with lovastatin or celecoxib at lower concentrations; however, a significant increase (1.6 to 4-fold) in caspase-3 expression and activity was found in HT-29 cells exposed with 20-25 microM lovastatin and/or 5-125 microM celecoxib and iv) importantly, in tumor cells exposed to low doses of (5 or 10 microM) lovastatin, combined with 25-75 microM of celecoxib, apoptosis induction rose 2.5 to 10-fold, caspase-3 expression was 2.3 to 8-fold higher, and enzyme activities were 1.5 to 5.5-fold elevated. This effect was highly synergistic and dose-dependent. Lamin B levels were significantly increased in a dose-dependent manner in cells treated with lovastatin but no such effect was observed with celecoxib. These results indicate that agents with different modes of action when applied in combinations will induce apoptosis synergistically by enhancing caspase-3 activities. These findings further support the hypothesis that HMGCo-R and COX-2 activities play important roles in apoptosis and regulation of apoptosis by selective agents such as lovastatin and celecoxib would provide effective strategies for the prevention of colon cancer.