The response of human myeloid leukemia cells to treatment with 1-beta- arabinofuranosylcytosine (ara-C) includes the induction of apoptosis. Ara-C induced apoptosis is associated with proteolytic cleavage of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP) and protein kinase C (PKC) delta. However, the signals involved in this response are unknown. The present studies show that ara-C treatment of U-937 cells is associated with induction of a protease activity that cleaves the tetrapeptides Ac-DEVD- pNA and Ac-DMOD-pNA found at the cleavage sites of PARP and PKC delta, respectively. The ara-C-induced protease activity was sensitive to overexpression of the anti-apoptotic protein Bcl-xL and the baculovirus protein p35. By contrast, overexpression of the cowpox virus protein CrmA blocked apoptosis induced by engagement of the Fas receptor but not that induced by ara-C. CrmA overexpression also had no detectable effect on ara-C-induced cleavage of PKC delta. The results further show that ara-C induces activation of the CPP32 protease by a CrmA- insensitive and p35-sensitive mechanism. Similar results were obtained with cisplatinum, etoposide, and camptothecin. These findings indicate that ara-C and other DNA-damaging agents activate a CrmA-insensitive apoptotic pathway involving CPP32 and that these signals differ from those associated with apoptosis induced by the Fas receptor.