B cell lymphomas are a diverse group of clinicopathologic diseases with an increasing incidence. As with other malignancies, the accumulation of genetic abnormalities are required for malignant transformation of human lymphocytes. Cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) is a key biosynthetic enzyme in prostaglandin synthesis and has been implicated in the pathogenesis of numerous malignancies including colon, breast, and lung cancer. There is little data on the potential role of COX-2 in lymphoma pathogenesis. In this study, several B lymphoma cell lines and primary B cells obtained from normal volunteer controls were examined for COX-2 protein expression. Immunoblot analysis demonstrated between an approximately 2.2-4.3-fold increase in COX-2 protein expression relative to primary B cells in all lymphoma cell lines examined. Increased COX-2 phosphorylation was found in the BJAB, BL41, and Raji cells whereas the levels in Daudi, Namalwa, and Ramos did not differ from that of primary B cells. Treatment with 25-100 microM celecoxib (CEL) resulted in decreased proliferation as measured by [3H]thymidine in all cell lines examined, and the effect was dose-dependent, and not significantly enhanced by chlorambucil (CHL). The effect of COX-2 inhibition on apoptosis in lymphoma cells was examined and revealed apoptotic induction of greater than 85% in all cell lines examined at 50 microM celecoxib. The pro-apoptotic effect was dose-dependent, and was not significantly enhanced by chlorambucil. Examination of apoptosis-related proteins by immunoblot analysis revealed levels of BCL-2, BCL-X(L), and Bax to be unaffected by celecoxib. In contrast, levels of Akt, MCL-1, and phosphorylated SAP-kinase were all decreased after incubation with 50 microM celecoxib. These findings suggest that increased COX-2 expression and activity, contributes to the pathogenesis of B cell lymphomas and point to a possible role for COX-2 inhibition in their treatment.