We examined the effect of pyrrolidine dithiocarbamate (PDTC), which potently blocks the activation of nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kappa B), on the induction of apoptosis by a variety of agents. Treatment of a human promyelocytic leukemia cell line, HL-60, with 10 micrograms/mL etoposide or 2 microM 1-beta-D-arabinofuranosylcytosine induced NF-kappa B activation within 1 hr and subsequently caused apoptosis within 3-4 hr. The simultaneous addition of 50-500 microM PDTC with these agents blocked NF-kappa B activation and completely abrogated both morphologically apoptotic changes and internucleosomal DNA fragmentation for up to 6 hr. However, PDTC failed to inhibit the endonuclease activity contained in the whole cell lysates. The inhibitory effect of PDTC was also observed in etoposide- and dexamethasone-induced apoptosis in human thymocytes at a concentration of 1-10 microM. Since PDTC has both antioxidant and metal-ion chelating activities, we tested the effects of N-acetyl-L-cysteine (NAC) (antioxidant) or o-phenanthroline (OP) (metal-ion chelator) on the induction of apoptosis. Pretreatment of HL-60 cells or thymocytes with 100-500 microM OP for 2 hr, but not 10-60 mM NAC, suppressed subsequent occurrence of apoptosis induced by etoposide. These results suggest that the activation of NF-kappa B plays an important role in the apoptotic process of human hematopoietic cells.