Transforming growth factor-beta1 (TGF-beta1) has been shown to induce apoptosis in normal or transformed hepatocytes. To elucidate the biochemical pathways leading to apoptosis induced by TGF-beta1 in human hepatoma cells (HuH-7), we examined the expression of Bcl-2-related proteins and X-chromosome-linked inhibitor of apoptosis (XIAP), and activation of the caspase cascade following TGF-beta1 treatment. Bcl-xL expression began to decline at 12 hours after TGF-beta1 treatment and progressively decreased to very low levels in a time-dependent manner. Bax expression showed a little change throughout the experiment. On the other hand, activation of caspase-8 was clearly observed at 36 hours after TGF-beta1 treatment, followed by activation of caspase-9, and caspase-3 was activated at 48 hours after treatment at which time apoptosis of HuH-7 cells was observed. TGF-beta1 significantly decreased XIAP expression in HuH-7 cells. Addition of an inhibitor of caspase-8 or caspase-3 (IETD-FMK or DEVD-CHO) markedly inhibited TGF-beta1-induced apoptosis of HuH-7 cells. Fas/Fas ligand (FasL) interactions in HuH-7 cells were not involved in the apoptotic process. Furthermore, epidermal growth factor (EGF) also completely inhibited TGF-beta1-induced apoptosis of HuH-7 cells by inhibiting activation of the caspase cascade. Our results suggested that activation of caspase-3 initiated through caspase-8 activation is involved in the apoptotic process induced by TGF-beta1 in HuH-7 cells. Our results also showed that down-regulation of the expression of Bcl-xL and XIAP by TGF-beta1 may facilitate activation of caspase-3 in these cells.