Irinotecan (CPT-11) is a camptothecin analog with low (about 10--20%) and variable oral bioavailability in animal models. Here, Caco-2 cells were used to evaluate the transepithelial transport of CPT-11 and its metabolites. Caco-2 cells demonstrated significant expression of P-glycoprotein (P-gp), multidrug resistance-associated protein and canalicular multispecific organic anion transporter. Both the lactone and carboxylate forms of CPT-11 and SN-38 were actively transported across the cell monolayers, mainly by the apical-localized P-gp pump. Cellular permeability of CPT-11 at a concentration of 17 microM converted from active to passive-diffusional transport between the 2 and 6 h exposure time points. Antiproliferative effects of CPT-11 were related to permeability of the lactone form, whereas for SN-38 efficacy was dependent on lactone accumulation. Exposure of CPT-11 with cyclosporin A significantly enhanced its efficacy, whereas this was not observed with verapamil and R101933. In contrast, SN-38 efficacy decreased in the presence of P-gp inhibitors due to active transport toward the basolateral side, thereby reducing drug accumulation. Hence, multiple-active transport systems could be demonstrated to be responsible for not only accumulation profiles but also cytotoxic efficacy of CPT-11 and SN-38 in the intestinal Caco-2 cells. It is suggested that CPT-11 might act in a time-dependent manner and that SN-38-mediated cytotoxicity relates to (dose-dependent) lactone kinetics. The results detailed in this report could contribute toward the development of a clinically useful oral formulation of CPT-11 with improved absorption characteristics and suggest that cyclosporin A is a suitable agent for further research of this concept.