Cytotoxici and alpha-diisoeugenol were investigated. The cytotoxicity of curcumin and a-diisoeugenol against human promyelocytic leukemia cells (HL-60 cells) and human submandibular cancer cells (HSG cells) was similar (CC50 1-3 microM). However, curcumin induced much more apoptosis, particularly in HL-60 cells compared with HSG cells, as revealed by measurement of the sub-G1/G0 DNA fraction in flow cytometric histograms. Treatment with 15 microM curcumin increased the number of cells with a sub-G1/G0 DNA fraction from control levels of <5% to 55% in HL-60 cells and 30% in HSG cells. Flow cytometry, after staining with annexin V-FITC/PI (the exposure of phosphatidylserine (PS) on the surface of apoptotic cells), showed a dose-dependent induction of early apoptosis by curcumin, which reached about 65% in HL-60 cells and about 20% in HSG cells after treatment with 10 microM curcumin. In contrast, alpha-diisoeugenol failed to induce apoptosis in either cell type. For both cell types, the proportion of late apoptotic/necrotic cells increased rapidly at concentrations of curcumin and a-diisoeugenol greater than 10 microM. The generation of intracellular reactive oxygen species (ROS) in curcumin-treated HL-60 cells was greater than that in HSG cells, as judged by CDFH-DA staining. In both cell types, ROS generation by a-diisoeugenol was at control levels. ROS generation by curcumin was suppressed by antioxidants such as N-acetyl-L-cysteine (NAC) and glutathione (GSH) and by scavengers of hydroxy radicals such as mannitol, but, conversely, was promoted by prooxidants such as the transition metal ions Cu(II) and Zn(II). ROS generation may play a part in the exposure of PS. Curcumin, but not a-diisoeugenol, at 10 microM inhibited LPS (lipopolysaccharide)-induced COX-2 gene expression in RAW 264.7 cells. Semiempirical PM 3 calculations suggested that this activity of curcumin, in which it behaves as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID)-like compound, is dependent on its phenolic function, which is more pronounced than that of alpha-diisoeugenol. Taken together, our results suggest that the bioactivity of curcumin is a result of its ability to act as both a prooxidant and an antioxidant.