Tubular damage by cisplatin leads to acute renal failure, which limits its use in cancer therapy. In tubular cells, a primary target for cisplatin is presumably the genomic DNA. However, the pathway relaying the signals of DNA damage to tubular cell death is unclear. In response to DNA damage, the tumor suppressor gene p53 is induced and is implicated in subsequent DNA repair and cell death by apoptosis. The current study was designed to examine the role of p53 in cisplatin-induced apoptosis in cultured rat kidney proximal tubular cells. Cisplatin at 20 microM induced apoptosis in approximately 70% of cells, which was partially suppressed by carbobenzoxy-Val-Ala-Asp-fluoromethyl ketone (VAD), a general caspase inhibitor. Of interest, cisplatin-induced apoptosis was also suppressed by pifithrin-alpha, a pharmacological inhibitor of p53. Cisplatin-induced caspase activation was completely inhibited by VAD, but only partially by pifithrin-alpha. Early during cisplatin treatment, p53 was phosphorylated and upregulated. The p53 activation was blocked by pifithrin-alpha, but not by VAD. Bcl-2 expression abolished cisplatin-induced apoptosis without blocking p53 phosphorylation or induction. The results suggest that p53 activation might be an early signal for apoptosis during cisplatin treatment. To further determine the role of p53, tubular cells were stably transfected with a dominant-negative mutant of p53 with diminished transcriptional activity. Expression of the mutant attenuated cisplatin-induced apoptosis and caspase activation. In conclusion, the results support an important role for p53 in cisplatin-induced apoptosis in renal tubular cells. p53 May regulate apoptosis through the transcription of apoptotic genes.