Statins are known to inhibit growth of a number of cancer cells, but their mechanism of action is not well established. In this study, human prostate adenocarcinoma PC-3 and breast adenocarcinoma MCF-7 cell lines were used as models to investigate the mechanism of action of atorvastatin, one of the statins. Atorvastatin was found to induce apoptosis in PC-3 cells at a concentration of 1 μM, and in MCF-7 cells at 50 μM. Initial survey of possible pathway using various pathway-specific luciferase reporter assays showed that atorvastatin-activated antioxidant response element (ARE), suggesting oxidative stress pathway may play a role in atorvastatin-induced apoptosis in both cell lines. Among the antioxidant response genes, heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1) was significantly up-regulated by atorvastatin. Pre-incubation of the cells with geranylgeranyl pyrophosphate blocked atorvastatin-induced apoptosis, but not up-regulation of HO-1, suggesting that atorvastatin-induced apoptosis is dependent on GTPase activity and up-regulation of HO-1 gene is not. Six ARE-like elements (designated StRE1 [stress response element] through StRE6) are present in the HO-1 promoter. Atorvastatin was able to activate all of the elements. Because these StRE sites are present in clusters in HO-1 promoter, up-regulation of HO-1 by atorvastatin may involve multiple StRE sites. The role of HO-1 in atorvastatin-induced apoptosis in PC-3 and MCF-7 remains to be studied.