Debrisoquine is a major prototypic in-vivo probe used to assess polymorphic CYP2D6 activity in humans, based on the 0-8 h urinary excretion of unchanged drug and its 4-hydroxy metabolite (the so-called metabolic ratio). The primary purpose of the study was to investigate further the relationship between genotype and phenotype by determining the overall disposition characteristics of the drug in selected groups of healthy Swedish Caucasian individuals. Debrisoquine (20 mg) was orally administered to five poor metabolizers with no functional CYP2D6 gene, five heterozygous extensive metabolizers, five homozygous extensive metabolizers, five ultrarapid metabolizers with duplicated/triplicated CYP2D6*2 genes and one individual with 13 copies of CYP2D6*2. Peak plasma levels of debrisoquine and 4-hydroxydebrisoquine were attained within 2-4 h and then declined in a multi-exponential fashion over 96 h. However, the post 8-h period of the elimination process was characterized by irregular fluctuations that prevented formal pharmacokinetic analysis. Nevertheless, marked differences were apparent in the compounds' plasma level-time profiles between the CYP2D6 genotypes. For example, in the case of debrisoquine, the mean ratio of the AUC(0-8) values was 22:22:7:6:1, corresponding to 0, 1, 2, 3/4 and 13 genes and, for 4-hydroxydebrisoquine, the respective values were 1:7:19:28:17. The 0-96 h urinary recovery of debrisoquine differed 100-fold between the genotypes, being essentially complete in poor metabolizers and zero in the individual with 13 CYP2D6*2 genes. 4-hydroxydebrisoquine excretion increased according to the number of functional CYP2D6 genes. A highly significant correlation (r(s) = 0.95, P < 0.001) was observed between the plasma AUC(0-8) ratio for debrisoquine to 4-hydroxydebrisoquine and the 0-8 h urinary metabolic ratio. This study demonstrates that the number of functional CYP2D6 alleles is critically important in the plasma concentration-time curves of debrisoquine and its CYP2D6-mediated 4-hydroxy metabolite. Concentration-related pharmacologic effects would be expected to be similarly affected by gene dosage and it is likely that the same situation also applies to other drugs whose elimination is importantly determined by this enzyme; for example, many antidepressants and neuroleptics, antiarrhythmic agents, beta-adrenoceptor antagonists and opiates.