Abstract Opiates such as morphine or heroin may promote cell apoptosis and cause dysfunction of immune cells. In simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV)-infected lymphocytic cells, however, morphine may protect the cells from apoptotic lysis and allow the virus to continue to replicate. To further explore this apparently antithetical effect of opiates, we evaluated in the present study the effects of morphine on human lymphocytic CEM x174 cells induced to undergo apoptosis in the presence of actinomycin D. It was found that induction of apoptosis (characterized by DNA laddering) by actinomycin D was accompanied by a stimulation of the expression of active (phosphorylated) form of p53. Pretreatment of the cells with 10 nM morphine caused a transient, naloxone-reversible suppression of the appearance of activated p53 and the generation of DNA laddering. Parallel evaluation of the growth of CEM x174 indicated that morphine treatment delays the inception of cell death triggered by actinomycin D. Inasmuch as Bcl-2 suppresses while Bax accelerates apoptosis, treatment of cells with morphine reduced the expression of Bax and enhanced the expression of Bcl-2. Taken together, morphine, through binding at the opioid receptor, may protect lymphocytic cells from apoptotic lysis if cell death is initiated by apoptosis-inducing agents such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), SIV or actinomycin D.