Primary effusion lymphoma (PEL) is an incurable, aggressive B-cell malignancy that develops rapid resistance to conventional chemotherapy. In efforts to identify novel approaches to block proliferation of PEL cells, we found that sanguinarine, a natural compound isolated from the root plant Sanguinaria canadendid, inhibits cell proliferation and induces apoptosis in a dose-dependent manner in several PEL cell lines. Our data show that sanguinarine treatment of PEL cells results in upregulation of death receptor 5 (DR5) expression via generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and causes activation of caspase-8 and truncation of Bid (tBid). Subsequently, tBid translocates to the mitochondria causing conformational changes in Bax, leading to loss of mitochondrial membrane potential and release of cytochrome c to the cytosol. Sanguinarine-induced release of cytochrome c results in activation of caspase-9 and caspase-3 and poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP) cleavage, leading to induction of caspase-dependent apoptosis. In addition, we show that pretreatment of PEL cells with carbobenzoxy-Val-Ala-Asp-fluoromethylketone, a universal inhibitor of caspases, abrogates caspase and PARP activation and prevents cell death induced by sanguinarine. Moreover, treatment of PEL cells with sanguinarine down-regulates expression of inhibitor of apoptosis proteins (IAP). Finally, N-acetylcysteine, an inhibitor of ROS, inhibits sanguinarine-induced generation of ROS, up-regulation of DR5, Bax conformational changes, activation of caspase-3, and down-regulation of IAPs. Taken together, our findings suggest that sanguinarine is a potent inducer of apoptosis of PEL cells via up-regulation of DR5 and raise the possibility that this agent may be of value in the development of novel therapeutic approaches for the treatment of PEL.