Apoptosis plays an important role in cancer biology. We investigated the expression of caspases 3 and 8 in malignant mesothelioma and malignant mesothelioma cell lines and putative changes in their ultrastructural expression prior and after exposure to epirubicin. Further studies were conducted to compare these changes to the localization and expression of the bcl-2 group of proteins bcl-X, bax and mcl-1, and Fas-Fas ligand in the same cells. In the histological samples, caspase 3 and 8 immunoreactivity was seen in 27/37 (73%) and 16/37 (43%) of the mesotheliomas. The immunostaining was cytoplasmic diffuse, granular, and occasionally nuclear. All six mesothelioma cell lines expressed caspases 3 and 8 by immunoblotting. After exposure to epirubicin the extent of apoptosis was increased in all cell lines investigated, being weakest in the most resistant M38K cell line. Immunoelectron microscopy revealed immunogold labeling for caspases 3 and 8 in the mitochondria with the accumulation of caspase 3 in the apoptotic bodies, while the mitochondrial localization of the bcl-2 proteins appeared to be very stable. Fas receptor could be detected by flow cytometry, whereas the most resistant cell line (M38K) lacked Fas ligand when assessed by RT-PCR. These results suggest the importance of caspase 3 during the apoptotic process of mesothelioma cells and indicate that epirubicin-induced apoptosis is independent of the mitochondrial pathway.