Fibroblast apoptosis plays a crucial role in normal and pathological scar formation and therefore we studied whether the putative apoptosis-inducing factor curcumin affects fibroblast apoptosis and may function as a novel therapeutic. We show that 25-microM curcumin causes fibroblast apoptosis and that this could be inhibited by co-administration of antioxidants N-acetyl-l-cysteine (NAC), biliverdin or bilirubin, suggesting that reactive oxygen species (ROS) are involved. This is supported by our observation that 25-microM curcumin caused the generation of ROS, which could be completely blocked by addition of NAC or bilirubin. Since biliverdin and bilirubin are downstream products of heme degradation by heme oxygenase (HO), it has been suggested that HO-activity protects against curcumin-induced apoptosis. Interestingly, exposure to curcumin maximally induced HO-1 protein and HO-activity at 10-15 microM, whereas, at a concentration of >20-microM curcumin HO-1-expression and HO-activity was negligible. NAC-mediated inhibition of 25-microM curcumin-induced apoptosis was demonstrated to act in part via restored HO-1-induction, since the rescuing effect of NAC could be reduced by inhibiting HO-activity. Moreover pre-induction of HO-1 using 5-microM curcumin protected fibroblasts against 25-microM curcumin-induced apoptosis. On a functional level, fibroblast-mediated collagen gel contraction, an in vitro wound contraction model, was completely prevented by 25-microM curcumin, while this could be reversed by co-incubation with NAC, an effect that was also partially HO-mediated. In conclusion, curcumin treatment in high doses (>25 microM) may provide a novel way to modulate pathological scar formation through the induction of fibroblast apoptosis, while antioxidants, HO-activity and its effector molecules act as a possible fine-tuning regulator.