Pleurodesis with talc is an accepted method for the treatment of symptomatic pleural effusions secondary to mesotheliomas. Patients with mesothelioma who have talc-induced pleurodesis have a lower morbidity than do those who do not have pleurodesis. The mechanisms whereby talc mediated these effects were considered to be secondary to a decrease or absence of a pleural effusion. The possibility that talc may directly affect malignant cells was not considered. The present study was designed to evaluate if talc directly effects cell death of malignant mesothelioma cells (MMC) or normal pleural mesothelial cells (PMC). Three confluent MMC and PMC were exposed to talc for 24, 48, and 72 h. In parallel experiments, glass beads similar in size to talc were included as control. Apoptosis was determined by terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated deoxyuridine triphosphate nick end labeling (TUNEL) and DNA electrophoresis. Our results demonstrated that talc at a therapeutically achievable concentration (6 microg/cm(2)) induces significant apoptosis in MMC. Talc-induced maximum apoptosis in MMC (39.50 +/- 2.55%, 31.87 +/- 4.69%, and 15.10 +/- 3.93% in CRL-2081, CRL-5820, and CRL-5915, respectively) at 48 h, which was significantly (p < 0.05) greater than that in control cells. Electrophoresis of DNA isolated from talc-exposed MMC demonstrated the typical ladder pattern of internucleosomal DNA cleavage. Talc did not induce apoptosis in PMC, and glass beads did not cause significant apoptosis in either MMC or PMC. The present study has demonstrated that talc induces apoptosis in MMC without affecting normal mesothelial cells of the pleura.