Exposure of some acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) cells to daunorubicin leads to rapid cell death, whereas other AML cells show natural drug resistance. This has been attributed to expression of functional P-glycoprotein resulting in reduced drug accumulation. However, it has also been proposed that P-glycoprotein-expressing multidrug-resistant (MDR) cells are inherently defective for apoptosis. To distinguish between these different possibilities, we have compared the cell death process in a human AML cell line (HL-60) with a MDR subline (HL-60/Vinc) at doses that yield either similar intracellular daunorubicin concentrations or comparable cytotoxicity. Adjustment of the dose to obtain the same intracellular drug accumulation in the two cell lines did not result in equal cytotoxicity, suggesting the presence of additional resistance mechanisms in the P-glycoprotein-expressing HL-60/Vinc cells. However, at equitoxic doses, similar cell death pathways were observed. In HL-60 cells, daunorubicin induced rapid apoptosis at 0.5-1 microM and delayed mitotic cell death at 0.1 microM. These concentrations are within the clinical dose range. Similarly, HL-60/Vinc cells underwent apoptosis at 50-100 microM daunorubicin and mitotic cell death at 10 microM. These results show, for the first time, that anthracyclines can induce cell death by a dual mechanism in both sensitive and MDR cells. Our results also show that not only the cytotoxicity, but also the kinetics and mechanism of cell death, are dose dependent. Interestingly, regrowth was observed only in association with delayed cell death and the formation of enlarged, often polyploid, cells with micronucleation, suggesting that morphological criteria may be useful to evaluate treatment efficacy in patients with myeloid leukaemias.