Most cancers rely disproportionately on glycolysis for energy even in the presence of adequate oxygen supply, a condition known as "aerobic glycolysis", or the Warburg effect. Pharmacological reversal of the Warburg effect has been shown to cause selective apoptosis of tumor cells, presumably by stimulating mitochondrial respiratory chain activity and production of reactive oxygen species that, in turn, induce a caspase-mediated series of reactions leading to cell death. We reasoned that a similar effect on tumor cells might result from up-regulation of the E1alpha subunit gene (pda1) of the pyruvate dehydrogenase complex (PDC) that catalyzes the rate-limiting step in aerobic glucose oxidation and thus plays a major role in the control of oxidative phosphorylation. To test this postulate, we employed a self-complementary adeno-associated virus (scAAV)-based delivery and expression system for targeting pda1 to the mitochondria of primary cultures of human hepatoblastoma (HB) and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) cells. Serotypes 1-10 scAAV vectors that included enhanced green fluorescent (egfp) reporter gene driven by either cytomegalovirus (CMV) or chicken beta-actin (CBA) promoters were analyzed for transduction ability of HB (Huh-6) and HCC (Huh-7 and HepG2) cell lines and primary cultures of normal human hepatocytes. Serotype 3 scAAV-egfp (scAAV3-egfp) vector was the most efficient and transduced up to 90% of cells. We limited the transgene expression primarily to liver cancer cells by generating scAAV3 vectors that contained the human alpha-fetoprotein promoter (AFP)-driven reporter gene (scAAV3.AFP-egfp) and the potentially therapeutic gene scAAV3.AFP-pda1. Infection of Huh-6 cells by the scAAV3.AFP-pda1 vector increased protein expression of E1alpha, PDC catalytic activity, and late-stage apoptotic cell death. Apoptosis was also associated with increased protein expression of Bcl-X/S, an early marker of apoptosis, and release of cytochrome c into the cytosol of infected HB cells. These data indicate that molecular targeting of mitochondrial oxidative metabolism in liver cancer cells by AAV3-mediated delivery of pda1 holds promise as a novel and effective therapeutic approach for human hepatic tumors.