To gain more insight into the pharmacological role of endogenous P-glycoprotein in the metabolism of the widely used substrate drug doxorubicin, we have studied the plasma pharmacokinetics, tissue distribution and excretion of this compound in mdr1a(-/-) and wild-type mice. Doxorubicin was administered as an i.v. bolus injection at a dose level of 5 mg kg(-1). Drug and metabolite concentrations were determined in plasma, tissues, urine and faeces by high-performance liquid chromatography. In comparison with wild-type mice, the terminal half-life and the area under the plasma concentration-time curve of doxorubicin in mdr1a(-/-) mice were 1.6- and 1.2-fold higher respectively. The retention of both doxorubicin and its metabolite doxorubicinol in the hearts of mdr1a(-/-) mice was substantially prolonged. In addition, a significantly increased drug accumulation was observed in the brain and the liver of mdr1a(-/-) mice. The relative accumulation in most other tissues was not or only slightly increased. The differences in cumulative faecal and urinary excretion of doxorubicin and metabolites between both types of mice were small. These experiments demonstrate that the absence of mdr1a P-glycoprotein only slightly alters the plasma pharmacokinetics of doxorubicin. Furthermore, the substantially prolonged presence of both doxorubicin and doxorubicinol in cardiac tissue of mdr1a(-/-) mice suggests that a blockade of endogenous P-glycoprotein in patients, for example by a reversal agent, may enhance the risk of cardiotoxicity upon administration of doxorubicin.