The antitumor activity of the sesquiterpene lactone parthenolide, an active ingredient of medicinal plants, is believed to be due to the inhibition of DNA binding of transcription factors NF-kappaB and STAT-3, reduction in MAP kinase activity and the generation of reactive oxygen. In this report, we show that parthenolide activates c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK), which is independent of inhibition of NF-kappaB DNA binding and generation of reactive oxygen species. Parthenolide reversed resistance of breast cancer cells to tumor necrosis factor-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL)-induced apoptosis. Cancer cells treated with a combination of TRAIL and parthenolide underwent massive typical apoptosis and atypical apoptosis involving the loss of plasma membrane integrity. JNK activity is necessary for the parthenolide-induced sensitization to TRAIL because a dominant-negative JNK or the JNK inhibitor SP600125 reduced TRAIL plus parthenolide-induced apoptosis. Parthenolide induced phosphorylation of Bid and increased TRAIL-dependent cleavage of Bid without affecting caspase 8 activities. Cytochrome c but not Smac/DIABLO was released from the mitochondria in cells treated with parthenolide alone. Parthenolide through JNK increased the TRAIL-mediated degradation of the antiapoptotic protein X-linked inhibitor of apoptosis (XIAP). Enhanced XIAP cleavage correlated with increased and prolonged caspase 3 activity and PARP cleavage, suggesting that the sensitization to TRAIL involves 'feed forward' activation of caspase 3. These results identify a new antitumor activity of parthenolide, which can be exploited to reverse resistance of cancer cells to TRAIL, particularly those with elevated XIAP levels.