Cholangiocarcinoma is a malignant neoplasm originating from cholangiocytes. The mechanisms responsible for oncogenesis of cholangiocytes are unknown. Resistance to apoptosis, especially by altered expression of B-cell lymphoma/leukemia 2 (Bcl-2) family members, has been implicated as a mechanism contributing to malignant transformation. Thus, our aim was to test the hypothesis that altered expression of Bcl-2 family members by cholangiocarcinoma cells renders them resistant to apoptosis. We compared the apoptotic threshold and expression of the Bcl-2 protein family members, Bcl-2, Bcl-XL, and Bax, in two human cell lines: 1) nonmalignant human cholangiocytes immortalized by transfection with the simian virus 40 (SV 40) large T antigen; and 2) a malignant human cholangiocarcinoma cell line. Apoptosis was induced pharmacologically using beauvericin. Bcl-2, Bcl-x long, and Bax protein expression were evaluated by immunoblot analysis, and Bcl-2 expression was modulated using antisense technology. The cholangiocyte and malignant/nonmaligant phenotype of both cell lines was verified using both in vitro and in vivo approaches. Beauvericin induced apoptosis of nonmalignant cholangiocytes in a concentration- (0 to 25 micromol/L) and time- (0 to 6 hours) dependent manner. In contrast, malignant cholangiocytes were resistant to apoptosis. Although expression of Bcl-x long and Bax protein were similiar in the two cell lines, Bcl-2 protein expression was 15-fold greater in malignant than in nonmalignant cholangiocytes. An 18 mer bcl-2 antisense oligonucleotide reduced expression of Bcl-2 protein by 50% and increased the rate of beauvericin-induced apoptosis more than threefold in the malignant cells. Our results support the hypothesis that resistance to apoptosis by overexpression of Bcl-2 may be a feature of cholangiocarcinoma.