Programmed cell death, or apoptosis, is inhibited by the antiapoptotic oncogene, Bcl-2, and is mediated by a cascade of aspartate-specific cysteine proteases, or caspases, related to interleukin 1-beta converting enzyme. Depending on cell type, apoptosis can be induced by treatment with thapsigargin (TG); a selective inhibitor of the endoplasmic reticulum-associated calcium-ATPase. The role of caspases in mediating TG-induced apoptosis was investigated in the Bcl-2-negative human breast cancer cell line, MDA-MB-468. Apoptosis developed in MDA-MB-468 cells over a period of 24-72 h following treatment with 100 nM TG, and was prevented by Bcl-2 overexpression. TG-induced apoptosis was associated with activation of caspase-3 and was inhibited by stable expression of the baculovirus p35 protein, an inhibitor of caspase activity. Also, TG-induced apoptosis was inhibited by treating cells with Z-VAD-fmk, a cell-permeable fluoromethylketone inhibitor of caspases. These findings indicate that TG-induced apoptosis of MDA-MB-468 breast cancer cells is subject to inhibition by Bcl-2 and is mediated by caspase activity. This model system should be useful for further investigation directed toward understanding the role of calcium in signaling apoptosis, and its relationship to Bcl-2 and the caspase proteolytic cascade.