The stereoselective sulfoxidation of the pharmacologically active metabolite of sulindac, sulindac sulfide, was characterized in human liver, kidney, and cDNA-expressed enzymes. Kinetic parameter estimates (pH = 7.4) for sulindac sulfoxide formation in human liver microsomes (N = 4) for R- and S-sulindac sulfoxide were V(max) = 1.5 +/- 0.50 nmol/min/mg, K(m) = 15 +/- 5.1 microM; and V(max) = 1.1 +/- 0.36 nmol/min/mg, K(m) = 16 +/- 6.1 microM, respectively. Kidney microsomes (N = 3) produced parameter estimates (pH = 7.4) of V(max) = 0.9 +/- 0.29 nmol/min/mg, K(m) = 15 +/- 2.9 microM; V(max) = 0.5 +/- 0.21 nmol/min/mg, K(m) = 22 +/- 1.9 microM for R- and S-sulindac sulfoxide, respectively. In human liver and flavin-containing monooxygenase 3 (FMO3) the V(max) for R-sulindac sulfoxide increased 60-70% at pH = 8.5, but for S-sulindac sulfoxide was unchanged. In fourteen liver microsomal preparations, significant correlations occurred between R-sulindac sulfoxide formation and either immunoquantified FMO or nicotine N-oxidation (r = 0.88 and 0.83; P < 0.01). The R- and S-sulindac sulfoxide formation rate also correlated significantly (r = 0.85 and 0.75; P < 0.01) with immunoquantified FMO in thirteen kidney microsomal samples. Mild heat deactivation of microsomes reduced activity by 30-60%, and a loss in stereoselectivity was observed. Methimazole was a potent and nonstereoselective inhibitor of sulfoxidation in liver and kidney microsomes. n-Octylamine and membrane solubilization with lubrol were potent and selective inhibitors of S-sulindac sulfoxide formation. cDNA-expressed CYPs failed to appreciably sulfoxidate sulindac sulfide, and CYP inhibitors were ineffective in suppressing catalytic activity. Purified mini-pig liver FMO1, rabbit lung FMO2, and human cDNA-expressed FMO3 efficiently oxidized sulindac sulfide with a high degree of stereoselectivity towards the R-isomer, but FMO5 lacked catalytic activity. The biotransformation of the sulfide to the sulfoxide is catalyzed predominately by FMOs and may prove to be useful in characterizing FMO activity.