Survivin is a member of the inhibitor of apoptosis protein (IAP) family. We investigated the antiapoptotic mechanism of Survivin, as well as its expression in 60 human tumor cell lines used for the National Cancer Institute's anticancer drug screening program. In cotransfection experiments, cell death induced by Bax or Fas (CD 95) was partially inhibited (mean +/- SD, 65% +/- 8%) by Survivin, whereas XIAP, another IAP family member, almost completely blocked cell death (93% +/- 4%) under the same conditions. Survivin and XIAP also protected 293 cells from apoptosis induced by overexpression of procaspase-3 and -7 and inhibited the processing of these zymogens into active caspases. In vitro binding experiments indicated that, like other IAP-family proteins, Survivin binds specifically to the terminal effector cell death proteases, caspase-3 and -7, but not to the proximal initiator protease caspase-8. Using a cell-free system in which cytosolic extracts were derived from control- or Survivin-transfected cells and where caspases were activated either by addition of cytochrome c and dATP or by adding recombinant active caspase-8, Survivin was able to substantially reduce caspase activity, as measured by cleavage of a tetrapeptide substrate, AspGluValAsp-aminofluorocoumarin. Similar results were obtained in intact cells when Survivin was overexpressed by gene transfection and caspase activation was induced by the anticancer drug etoposide. Survivin was expressed in all 60 cancer cell lines analyzed, with highest levels in breast and lung cancers and lowest levels in renal cancers. These findings indicate that Survivin, which is commonly expressed in human tumor cell lines, can bind the effector cell death proteases caspase-3 and -7 in vitro and inhibits caspase activity and cell death in cells exposed to diverse apoptotic stimuli. Although quantitative differences may exist, these observations suggest commonality in the mechanisms used by IAP-family proteins to suppress apoptosis.