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BACKGROUND: Human colon cancers have a high frequency of p53 mutations, and cancer cells expressing mutant p53 tend to be resistant to current chemo- and radiation therapy. It is thus important to find therapeutic agents that can inhibit colon cancer cells with altered p53 status. beta-Lapachone, a novel topoisomerase inhibitor, has been shown to induce cell death in human promyelocytic leukemia and prostate cancer cells through a p53-independent pathway. Here we examined the effects of beta-lapachone on human colon cancer cells. MATERIALS AND METHODS: Several human colon cancer cell lines, SW480, SW620, and DLD1, with mutant or defective p53, were used. The antiproliferative effects of beta-lapachone were assessed by colony formation assays, cell cycle analysis, and apoptosis analysis, including annexin V staining and DNA laddering analysis. The effects on cell cycle and apoptosis regulatory proteins were examined by immunoblotting. RESULTS: All three cell lines, SW480, SW620, and DLD1, were sensitive to beta-lapachone, with an IC(50) of 2 to 3 microM in colony formation assays, a finding similar to that previously reported for prostate cancer cells. However, these cells were arrested in different stages of S phase. At 24 hr post-treatment, beta-lapachone induced S-, late S/G2-, and early S-phase arrest in SW480, SW620, and DLD1 cells, respectively. The cell cycle alterations induced by beta-lapachone were congruous with changes in cell cycle regulatory proteins such as cyclin A, cyclin B1, cdc2, and cyclin D1. Moreover, beta-lapachone induced apoptosis, as demonstrated by annexin V staining, flow cytometric analysis of DNA content, and DNA laddering analysis. Furthermore, down-regulation of mutant p53 and induction of p27 in SW480 cells, and induction of pro-apoptotic protein Bax in DLD1 cells may be pertinent to the anti-proliferative and apoptotic effects of beta-lapachone on these cells. CONCLUSIONS: beta-Lapachone induced cell cycle arrest and apoptosis in human colon cancer cells through a p53-independent pathway. For human colon cancers, which often contain p53 mutations, beta-lapachone may prove to be a promising anticancer agent that can target cancer cells, especially those with mutant p53.