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In the present study we investigated the intracellular signaling pathway leading to p53-independent activation of caspase-3 during heat-induced apoptosis of pancreatic carcinoma cells. Induction of mutant p53 protein, but not p21/WAF-1, was observed after heat treatment of both heat-resistant (PANC-1) and heat-sensitive (MIAPaCa-2) cells. A specific inhibitor of caspase-3 (Ac-DMQD-CHO) caused 84% and 92% inhibition of apoptosis in MIAPaCa-2 and PANC-1 cells, respectively. Caspase-3 mRNA expression was increased in both cell lines after heat treatment. Further, heat-induced caspase-3 activity detected by fluorogenic assay in MIAPaCa-2 cells was almost completely inhibited by addition of the antioxidant N-acetyl-l-cysteine. In contrast, Ac-DMQD-CHO had no inhibitory effect on amounts of reactive oxygen species in heat-treated MIAPaCa-2 cells. These results suggest a possible pathway by which reactive oxygen species lead to caspase-3 activation to cause heat-induced death of pancreatic carcinoma cells carrying mutant p53.