The mode of cell death following photodynamic therapy (PDT) was investigated from the perspective of programmed cell death (apoptosis). Human prostate carcinoma cells (PC3), human non-small cell lung carcinoma (H322a), and rat mammary carcinoma (MTF7) were treated by PDT following sensitization with dihematoporphyrin ether (DHE). The response of these carcinoma cell lines to PDT was variable. An examination of extracted cellular DNA by gel electrophoresis showed the characteristic DNA ladder pattern indicative of internucleosomal cleavage of DNA during apoptosis. MTF7 and PC3 responded to PDT by inducing apoptosis while H322a had no apoptotic response. The magnitude of the response and the PDT dosage required to induce the effect were different in PC3 and MTF7. MTF7 cells responded with rapid apoptosis at the dose of light and drug that yielded 50% cell death (LD 50). In contrast, PC3 showed only marginal apoptosis at the LD50 but had a marked response at the LD85. Furthermore, the onset of apoptosis followed slower kinetics in PC3 (2 hr - 4 hr) than in MTF7 (< 1 hr). H322a cells were killed by PDT but failed to exhibit any apoptotic response. This study indicates that apoptosis may occur during PDT induced cell death, but this pathway is not universal for all cancer cell lines.