Small cell lung cancer cell lines were resistant to FasL and TRAIL-induced apoptosis, which could be explained by an absence of Fas and TRAIL-R1 mRNA expression and a deficiency of surface TRAIL-R2 protein. In addition, caspase-8 expression was absent, whereas FADD, FLIP and caspases-3, -7, -9 and -10 could be detected. Analysis of SCLC tumors revealed reduced levels of Fas, TRAIL-R1 and caspase-8 mRNA compared to non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) tumors. Methylation-specific PCR demonstrated methylation of CpG islands of the Fas, TRAIL-R1 and caspase-8 genes in SCLC cell lines and tumor samples, whereas NSCLC samples were not methylated. Cotreatment of SCLC cells with the demethylating agent 5'-aza-2-deoxycytidine and IFNgamma partially restored Fas, TRAIL-R1 and caspase-8 expression and increased sensitivity to FasL and TRAIL-induced death. These results suggest that SCLC cells are highly resistant to apoptosis mediated by death receptors and that this resistance can be reduced by a combination of demethylation and treatment with IFNgamma.