Because treatment regimens for breast cancer commonly include gemcitabine, we evaluated two promising combinations in preclinical studies: gemcitabine (Gemzar; Eli Lilly and Company, Indianapolis, IN) with either ionizing radiation or docetaxel (Taxotere; Aventis Pharmaceuticals, Inc, Parsippany, NJ). In breast cancer cell lines that expressed either wild-type p53 (MCF-7) or mutant p53 (MCF-7/Adr), sensitivity to the cytotoxic effects of gemcitabine during a 24-hour incubation was similar (IC(50) values 80 and 60 nmol/L in MCF-7 and MCF-7/Adr, respectively). Both cell lines were well radiosensitized by gemcitabine at the corresponding IC(50), with radiation enhancement ratios of 1.6 to 1.7. Although the MCF-7 cells accumulated nearly twice as much gemcitabine triphosphate compared with the MCF-7/Adr cells, a similar reduction in 2'-deoxyadenosine 5'-triphosphate pools was observed. While the number of dying cells, as measured by sub-G1 DNA content or S-phase cells unable to replicate DNA, differed between the wild-type p53 or mutant p53-expressing cell lines, neither parameter correlated with radiosensitization. Docetaxel was a more potent cytotoxic agent than gemcitabine in MCF-7 cells (IC(50) = 1 nmol/L). Strong synergistic cytotoxicity was observed in cells treated with gemcitabine (24 hours) followed by docetaxel (24 hours) or the reverse sequence. However, simultaneous addition of the two drugs was antagonistic. To determine whether synergy with radiation or docetaxel was mediated by increased DNA damage, DNA double-strand breaks (double-strand breaks) were measured by immunostaining for phosphorylated H2AX. Ionizing radiation produced more double-strand breaks than gemcitabine alone, while no significant double-strand breaks formed with docetaxel alone. The addition of docetaxel or ionizing radiation to gemcitabine-treated cells did not increase H2AX foci formation. These results show that the combination of gemcitabine with ionizing radiation or docetaxel produces strong, schedule-dependent synergy in breast cancer cells that is not mediated through increasing DNA double-strand breaks.