ABSTRACT Skin fibroblasts from certain patients with the photosensitivity dermatitis/actinic reticuloid syndrome show enhanced sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation compared to normal fibroblasts. To probe further the link between oxidative damage and this disease, we have obtained a more extensive set of cell lines from patients with a severe form of the disease and examined their sensitivity towards oxidative stress by measuring cell survival following UVA radiation (330-450 nm) or hydrogen peroxide treatment (0.1-2.4 mM). The activation of the stress gene, heme oxygenase, has also been assessed by measuring the accumulation of mRNA after hydrogen peroxide treatment. Our studies have confirmed that a slight ultraviolet sensitivity is a characteristic of photosensitivity dermatitis/actinic reticuloid syndrome cell strains and we further demonstrate that these cell lines are particularly sensitive to hydrogen peroxide with up to a three- to fourfold increased sensitivity as compared to normal controls. We also show that certain ataxia telangiectasia strains that are especially sensitive to hydrogen peroxide are also slightly sensitive to ultraviolet radiation. Hydrogen peroxide induces accumulation of mRNA for the oxidant-inducible stress protein, heme oxygenase, with similar kinetics (maximum mRNA accumulation 2-4 h following treatment) and with a similar range of magnitudes in both normal (6.6-20.6 times mRNA increase over basal levels) and photosensitivity dermatitis/actinic reticuloid (2.9-12.8 times) skin cells. Because cells from photosensitivity dermatitis/actinic reticuloid patients show increased sensitivity towards oxidative stress but show no significant change in oxidant activation of the heme oxygenase gene, we propose that the defect involves a late stage of processing of oxidative damage rather than a compromised free radical scavenging system.