Bendamustine is a novel cytostatic agent, with activity in non-Hodgkin's lymphomas including B-chronic lymphocytic leukemia (B-CLL). The knowledge about its mode of action, however, is still limited. Here, we investigated the in vitro ability of bendamustine to induce apoptosis on freshly isolated peripheral lymphocytes in B-CLL and analyze the potential underlying mechanisms of action for inducing apoptosis. In CLL cells taken from 37 previously treated and untreated CLL patients, we investigated the influence of bendamustine alone, and in combination with fludarabine, on the induction of apoptosis and changes of Bcl-2 and Bax expression on mRNA and protein level using the RNase protection assay or flow cytometry, respectively. Apoptotic cells were determined with flow cytometry using the fluorescent DNA-binding agent 7-ADD. Using bendamustine alone in concentrations from 1 microg/ml to 50 microg/ml, a dose- and time-dependent manner of cytotoxicity from 30.4% to 94.8% after 48 h could be observed. The LD50 for untreated and pretreated CLL cells was 7.3 or 4.4 microg/ml, respectively. The median apoptotic rate was similar in both groups. The combination of bendamustine with fludarabine led to a highly synergistic effect in inducing apoptosis, which was 150% higher than expected for bendamustine plus fludarabine. The level of the initial Bcl-2 and Bax protein and the m-RNA expression remained unchanged during the incubation with bendamustine. In conclusion, this study demonstrates for the first time the in vitro efficacy of bendamustine in inducing apoptosis in B-CLL cells alone and in combination with fludarabine.