© 2014 Samuel et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. Background: The nuclear factor kappa-light-chain-enhancer of activated B cells (NF-κB) signaling pathway is activated in cells exposed to various stimuli, including those originating on the cell surface or in the nucleus. Activated NF-κB signaling is thought to enhance cell survival in response to these stimuli, which include chemotherapy and radiation. In the present effort, we determined which anticancer drugs preferentially activate NF-κB in colon cancer cells.Methods: NF-κB reporter cells were established and treated with 5-fluorouracil (5-FU, DNA/RNA damaging), oxaliplatin (DNA damaging), camptothecin (CTP, topoisomerase inhibitor), phleomycin (radiomimetic), or erlotinib (EGFR inhibitor). The activation of NF-κB was assessed by immunofluorescence for p65 translocation, luciferase assays, and downstream targets of NF-κB activation (cIAP2, and Bcl-XL) were evaluated by immunoblotting, by ELISA (CXCL8 and IL-6 in culture supernatants), or by gene expression analysis.Results: Colon cancer cells responded variably to different classes of therapeutic agents, and these agents initiated variable responses among different cell types. CPT activated NF-κB in SW480 colon cancer cells in a dose-dependent manner, but not in HCT116 cells that were either wild-type or deficient for p53. In SW480 colon cancer cells, NF-κB activation by CPT was accompanied by secretion of the cytokine CXCL8, but not by up-regulation of the anti-apoptotic genes, cIAP2 or Bcl-XL. On the contrary, treatment of HCT116 cells with CPT resulted in up-regulation of CXCR2, a receptor for CXCL8, without an increase in cytokine levels. In SW480 cells, NF-κB reporter activity, but not cytokine secretion, was inhibited by SM-7368, an NF-κB inhibitor.Conclusion: The results show that, in response to cancer therapeutic agents, NF-κB activation varies with the cellular make up and that drug-induced NF-κB activation may be functionally uncoupled from anti-apoptotic outcomes found for other stimuli. Some cancer cells in a heterogeneous tumor tissue may, under therapeutic pressure, release soluble factors that have paracrine activity on neighboring cells that express the cognate receptors.