Previous studies have identified RRR-alpha-tocopheryl succinate (vitamin E succinate, VES) as a potential chemotherapeutic agent. VES induces human breast cancer cells to undergo apoptosis in a concentration- and time-dependent manner by restoring transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta) and Fas (CD95) apoptotic signaling pathways, that contribute to the activation of c-Jun NH(2)-terminal kinase (JNK)-mediated apoptosis. The objective of these studies was to clarify biochemical events involved in VES-induced apoptosis. Data show that VES-induced apoptosis involves: (a) translocation of Bax from the cytosol to the mitochondria and cytochrome c release from the mitochondria to the cytosol as determined by Western immunoblot analyses of mitochondrial- and cytosolic-enriched cellular fractions; (b) increased permeabilization of mitochondrial membranes as determined by confocal and fluorescence-activated cell sorting analyses of loss of a mitochondrial selective fluorescent dye; (c) processing of caspase-9 and -3 but not caspase-8 to active forms and cleavage of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP) as determined by Western immunoblot analyses using antibodies capable of detecting both proenzyme and processed enzyme forms or the intact or cleaved forms of PARP. Transient transfection of cells with antisense oligonucleotides to Bax or transient overexpression of Bcl-2 prevented VES-induced mitochondrial permeability transition and apoptosis. The use of cell-permeable caspase inhibitors indicated that caspase-9 and -3 but not caspase-8 are involved in VES-induced apoptosis. JNK inhibitor II blocked VES-induced Bax conformational change, indicating a role for JNK in Bax translocation to the mitochondria. Taken together, these data suggest that the activation of JNK, translocation of Bax to the mitochondria, increased mitochondrial membrane permeability with release of cytochrome c, and activation of caspase-9 and -3 are critical events in VES-induced apoptosis of human MDA-MB-435 breast cancer cells.