In contrast to their inactive parent compound triptycene (code name TT0), several new synthetic analogs (TT code number) have antileukemic activities and remain effective in daunorubicin (DAU)-resistant tumor sublines in vitro. Among variously substituted 9,10-dihydro-9,10-[1,2]benzenoanthracene-1,4,5,8-tetraones, a total of six lead antitumor compounds have been identified, and their code names are TT2, TT13, TT16, TT19, TT21 and TT24. These active antitumor triptych structures have bisquinone functionality, and various bromo, methoxy, methylamino and/or dimethylamino substitutions with or without longer alkyl chains on the amino function. Like the anthracycline quinone antibiotic DAU, these triptycene (TT) bisquinones also inhibit DNA synthesis and induce DNA cleavage in relation with their cytotoxic activities, but have the additional advantage of blocking the cellular transport of purine and pyrimidine nucleosides, an effect which DAU cannot do. As demonstrated by intact chromatin precipitation and agarose gel electrophoresis, the ability of TT bisquinones and DAU to induce DNA fragmentation is biphasic with a peak that shifts to lower concentrations with increasing times of drug exposure. The most effective lead antitumor compound, TT24, induces DNA cleavage in the same concentration-dependent manner as DAU at 24 h (similar peak in response to 1.6 microM) and is nearly equipotent to DAU against L1210 tumor cell viability at day 4 (IC50 values of TT24 and DAU: 48 and 25 nM, respectively). The mechanism by which TT24 induces DNA fragmentation is inhibited by actinomycin D, cycloheximide, benzyloxycarbonyl-Val-Ala-Asp-fluoromethyl ketone, benzyloxycarbonyl-Ile-Glu-Thr-Asp-fluoromethyl ketone, N-tosyl-L-phenylalanine chloromethyl ketone and ZnSO4, suggesting that TT bisquinones trigger apoptosis by caspase and endonuclease activation. Since TT24 is cytotoxic in the nanomolar range of DAU, but might have a more versatile mechanism of action than DAU in wild-type and multidrug-resistant tumor cells, this new class of DNA-damaging quinone antitumor drugs inhibiting nucleoside transport might be valuable to develop new means of polychemotherapy.