Expression and function of the Fas apoptotic pathway was investigated in normal and malignant human breast epithelial cells. Nontransformed mammary epithelial cell lines all expressed high levels of Fas mRNA and protein, but only one of seven breast cancer cell lines (T47D) expressed high levels of Fas. Apoptosis was induced in the nontransformed lines when they were incubated with the anti-Fas antibody. However, all of the breast cancer cell lines tested, except T47D, were resistant to Fas-mediated apoptosis. Four of five Fas-resistant breast cancer cell lines became sensitive to Fas-mediated apoptosis upon treatment with IFN-gamma. Fas mRNA increased slightly in both cell lines that became sensitive and in the cell line that remained resistant to Fas-mediated apoptosis upon IFN-gamma treatment. However, the cell surface expression of Fas showed little or no increase in any of the cell lines tested upon IFN-gamma treatment. In contrast to Fas expression, interleukin-1beta-converting enzyme (ICE) expression increased only in the cell lines that became Fas sensitive after IFN-gamma treatment. The importance of ICE and/or ICE-like proteases in Fas-mediated apoptosis in these cells was confirmed by inhibition of Fas-mediated apoptosis by a specific ICE inhibitor, YVAD-cmk. Fas sensitivity was reconstituted in the IFN-gamma-resistant cell line by transfection of ICE into that cell line. Together, these data suggest that down-regulation of Fas and its pathway may be a step in tumor progression and that modulation of Fas expression may provide an approach to inducing apoptosis in breast cancer cells.