During liver tissue repair, hepatic stellate cells (HSC), a pericyte-like mesenchymal liver cell population, transform from a "quiescent" status ("resting" HSC) into myofibroblast-like cells ("activated" HSC) with the latter representing the principle matrix synthesizing cell of the liver. Presently, the mechanisms that terminate HSC cell proliferation when tissue repair is concluded are poorly understood. Controlled cell death known as apoptosis could be a mechanism underlying this phenomenon. Therefore, apoptosis and its regulation were studied in HSC using an in vitro and in vivo approach. Spontaneous apoptosis became detectable in parallel with HSC activation because resting cells (2 days after isolation) displayed no sign of apoptosis, whereas apoptosis was present in 8% (+/- 5%) of "transitional" cells (day 4) and in 18% (+/- 8%) of fully activated cells (day 7). Both CD95 (APO-1/Fas) and CD95L (APO-1-/Fas-ligand) became increasingly expressed during the course of activation. Apoptosis could be fully blocked by CD95-blocking antibodies in normal cells and HSC already entering the apoptotic cycle. Using CD95-activating antibodies, transition of more than 95% cells into apoptosis was evident at each activation step. The apoptosis-regulating proteins Bcl-2 and p53 could not be detected in resting cells but were found in increasing amounts at days 4 and 7 of cultivation. Whereas p53 expression was induced by the CD95-activating antibody, no change was inducible in Bcl-2 expression. The Bcl-2-related protein bax could be found at days 2 and 4 in similar expression, was considerably up-regulated at day 7, but was not regulated by CD95-agonistic antibodies. In vivo, acute tissue damage was first accompanied by activation and proliferation of HSC displaying no sign of apoptosis. In the recovery phase, apoptotic HSC were detectable in parallel to a reduction in the total number of HSC present in the liver tissue. The data demonstrate that apoptosis becomes detectable in parallel with HSC activation, which suggests that apoptosis might represent an important mechanism terminating proliferation of activated HSC.