The macrolide antibiotic erythromycin has recently been shown to overcome the resistance to anticancer drugs that results from overexpression of P-glycoprotein. The present study, using erythromycin lactobionic acid as a model drug, investigated the inhibitory effects of erythromycin on the efflux of doxorubicin from P388/ADR cells expressing P-glycoprotein and on the biliary excretion mechanism of doxorubicin in rats, which is primarily mediated by P-glycoprotein. Erythromycin lactobionic acid was found to inhibit the efflux of doxorubicin (5 microM) from P388/ADR cells in a concentration-dependent manner. In rats receiving constant-rate infusion of doxorubicin (30 micrograms/min), both the biliary and renal clearance of this drug dramatically decreased and its plasma concentrations increased after an intravenous injection of erythromycin lactobionic acid (100 mg/kg as erythromycin). These results suggest that erythromycin competitively inhibits P-glycoprotein-mediated biliary and renal excretion of doxorubicin. The effect of erythromycin on the biliary secretion of doxorubicin was also analyzed quantitatively by the competitive inhibition model. The computer-estimated values of Vmax/Km, Km and Ki were 8.79 ml/minute, 0.82 microgram/ml and 0.41 microgram/ml, respectively. The findings of these experiments suggest that the inhibitory effect of erythromycin on the P-glycoprotein-mediated biliary excretion of doxorubicin is competitive and that combination chemotherapy of doxorubicin with erythromycin may induce toxicity as a result of increased plasma concentrations of doxorubicin.