Digoxin is a drug with a narrow therapeutic index, which is substrate of the ATP-dependent efflux pump P-glycoprotein. Increased or decreased digoxin plasma concentrations occur in humans due to inhibition or induction of this drug transporter in organs with excretory function such as small intestine, liver and kidneys. Whereas particle size, dissolution rate and lipophilic properties have been identified as determinants for absorption of digitalis glycosides, little is known about P-glycoprotein transport characteristics of digitalis glycosides such as digitoxin, alpha-methyldigoxin, beta-acetyldigoxin and ouabain. Using polarized P-glycoprotein-expressing cell lines we therefore studied whether these compounds are substrates of P-glycoprotein. Polarized transport of digitalis glycosides was assessed in P-glycoprotein-expressing Caco-2 and L-MDR1 cells (LLC-PK1 cells stably transfected with the human MDR1 P-glycoprotein). Inhibition of P-glycoprotein-mediated transport of these compounds in Caco-2 cells was determined using the cyclosporine analogue PSC-833 (valspodar) as inhibitor of P-glycoprotein. No polarized transport was observed for ouabain. However, basal-to-apical transport of digitoxin, alpha-methyldigoxin and beta-acetyldigoxin was greater than apical-to-basal transport in Caco-2 and L-MDR1 cells. In Caco-2 cells net transport rates of these compounds were similar to those of digoxin (digoxin: 16.0+/-4.4%, digitoxin: 15.0+/-3.3%, beta-acetyldigoxin: 16.2+/-1.6%, alpha-methyldigoxin: 13.5+/-4.8%). Furthermore, polarized transport of these compounds could be completely inhibited by 1 microM PSC-833. In summary, these data provide evidence that not only digoxin, but also digitoxin, alpha-methyldigoxin and beta-acetyldigoxin are substrates of P-glycoprotein.