Calcium signals induced by the Ca(2+) regulatory hormone 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) may determine the fate of the cancer cell. We have shown that, in breast cancer cell lines, 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) induces a sustained increase in concentration of intracellular Ca(2+) ([Ca(2+)](i)) by depleting the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) Ca(2+) stores via inositol 1,4,5-trisphosphate receptor/Ca(2+) release channel and activating Ca(2+) entry from the extracellular space via voltage-insensitive Ca(2+) channels. In normal cells, 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) triggered a transient Ca(2+) response via activation of voltage-dependent Ca(2+) channels, which were absent in breast cancer cells. The normal cells, but not breast cancer cells, expressed the Ca(2+) binding/buffering protein calbindin-D(28k) and were capable of buffering [Ca(2+)](i) increases induced by a mobilizer of the ER Ca(2+) stores, thapsigargin, or a Ca(2+) ionophore, ionomycin. The 1,25(OH)(2)D(3)-induced sustained increase in [Ca(2+)](i) in breast cancer cells was associated with induction of apoptotic cell death, whereas the transient [Ca(2+)](i) increase in normal cells was not. The forced expression of calbindin-D(28k) in cytosol or increase in the cytosolic Ca(2+) buffering capacity with the cell-permeant Ca(2+) buffer BAPTA prevented induction of apoptosis with 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) in cancer cells. The sustained increase in [Ca(2+)](i) in breast cancer cells was associated with activation of the Ca(2+)-dependent apoptotic proteases, mu-calpain and caspase-12, as evaluated with antibodies to active (cleaved) forms of the enzymes and the fluorogenic peptide substrates. Selective inhibition of the Ca(2+) binding sites of mu-calpain decreased apoptotic indices in the cancer cells treated with 1,25(OH)(2)D(3), thapsigargin, or ionomycin. The mu-calpain activation preceded expression/activation of caspase-12, and calpain was required for activation/cleavage of caspase-12. Certain non-calcemic vitamin D analogs (e.g., EB 1089) triggered a sustained [Ca(2+)](i) increase, activated Ca(2+)-dependent apoptotic proteases, and induced apoptosis in breast cancer cells in a fashion similar to that of 1,25(OH)(2)D(3). The 1,25(OH)(2)D(3)-induced transient Ca(2+) response in normal mammary epithelial cells was not accompanied by activation of mu-calpain and caspase-12. In conclusion, we have identified the novel apoptotic pathway in breast carcinoma cells treated with 1,25(OH)(2)D(3): increase in [Ca(2+)](i)-->mu-calpain activation-->caspase-12 activation-->apoptosis. Our results support the hypothesis that 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) directly activates this apoptotic pathway by inducing a sustained increase in [Ca(2+)](i). Differences of Ca(2+) regulatory mechanisms in cancer versus normal cells seem to allow 1,25(OH)(2)D(3) and vitamin D analogs to induce Ca(2+)-mediated apoptosis selectively in breast cancer cells. Thus, deltanoids may prove to be useful in the treatment of tumors susceptible to induction of Ca(2+)-mediated apoptosis.