Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is a promising therapeutic modality that utilizes a combination of a photosensitizer and visible light for the destruction of diseased tissues. Using human-pigmented melanoma cells, we examined the photokilling efficacy of new silicon-phthalocyanines (SiPc) that bore bulky axial substituents. The bis(cholesteryloxy) derivate (Chol-O-SiPc) displayed the best in vitro photokilling efficacy (LD(50) = 6-8 x 10(-9) M) and was seven to nine times more potent than chloro-aluminium Pc (ClAlPc), a known photosensitizer used as a reference. Although Chol-O-SiPc was half as potent as ClAlPc for promoting photo-oxidative membrane damage in a cell-free assay, early events of mitochondrion-mediated apoptosis upon PDT were triggered much faster, as demonstrated by kinetics studies examining cells with permeabilized mitochondrial membranes, cytochrome c release and caspase-9 activation. Inhibition of caspase-9 activity by a substrate analogue argued for its central role in the proapoptotic events leading to cell death by Chol-O-SiPc PDT. In addition, immunoblots showed that Bcl-2 antiapoptotic oncoprotein was not a primary target of Chol-O-SiPc in M3Dau cells treated with PDT. Conclusively, Chol-O-SiPc is a useful new photosensitizer with the property of triggering cell apoptosis mediated by mitochondria.