2-Chloro-2'-deoxyadenosine (CdA; cladribine) is a chemotherapeutic agent used in the treatment of certain leukemias. However, the signalling events that govern CdA-mediated cytotoxicity in leukemia cells remain unclear. We show here that CdA treatment caused Jurkat human T leukemia cells to die via apoptosis in a dose- and time-dependent fashion. Bcl-2 overexpression protected Jurkat T leukemia cells from CdA-induced apoptosis and loss of mitochondrial transmembrane potential (Delta Psi m). Furthermore, mitochondria that were isolated from Jurkat T leukemia cells and then exposed to CdA showed a loss of Delta Psi m, indicating that CdA directly compromised outer mitochondrial membrane integrity. CdA treatment of Jurkat T leukemia cells resulted in the activation of caspase-3, -8, and -9, while inhibition of these caspases prevented the CdA-induced loss of Delta Psi m, as well as DNA fragmentation. In addition, caspase-3 inhibition prevented caspase-8 activation while caspase-8 inhibition prevented caspase-9 activation. Death receptor signalling was not involved in CdA-induced apoptosis since cytotoxicity was not affected by FADD-deficiency or antibody neutralization of either Fas ligand or tumor necrosis factor-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL). Taken together, these data suggested that CdA-induced apoptosis in Jurkat T leukemia cells was mediated via a caspase-3-dependent mitochondrial feedback amplification loop. CdA treatment also increased p38 mitogen-activated protein (MAPK) and extracellular signal-regulated kinase 1 and 2 (ERK1/2) phosphorylation in Jurkat T leukemia cells. Although ERK1/2 inhibition did not affect CdA-mediated cytotoxicity, inhibition of p38 MAPK had an enhancing effect, which suggested a cytoprotective function for p38 MAPK. Agents that inhibit p38 MAPK might therefore increase the effectiveness of CdA-based chemotherapy.