DNA topoisomerases have been shown to be important therapeutic targets in cancer chemotherapy. We found that KT6006 and KT6528, synthetic antitumor derivatives of indolocarbazole antibiotic K252a, were potent inducers of a cleavable complex with topoisomerase I. In DNA cleavage assay using purified calf thymus DNA topoisomerase I and supercoiled pBR322 DNA, KT6006 induced topoisomerase I mediated DNA cleavage in a dose-dependent manner at drug concentrations up to 50 microM, while DNA cleavage induced by KT6528 was saturated at 5 microM. The maximal amount of nicked DNA produced by KT6006 was more than 50% of substrate DNA, which was comparable to that of camptothecin. Heat treatment (65 degrees C) of the reaction mixture containing these compounds and topoisomerase I resulted in a substantial reduction in DNA cleavage, suggesting that topoisomerase I mediated DNA cleavage induced by KT6006 and KT6528 is through the mechanism of stabilizing the reversible enzyme-DNA "cleavable complex". Both KT6006 and KT6528 did not induce topoisomerase II mediated DNA cleavage in vitro. KT6006 and KT6528 were found to induce nearly identical topoisomerase I mediated DNA cleavage patterns, which was distinctly different from that with camptothecin. In contrast to the similarity between KT6006 and KT6528 in their structures and the nature of their cleavable complex with topoisomerase I, these drugs have different properties with respect to their interaction with DNA: KT6006 is a very weak intercalator whereas KT6528 is a strong intercalator with potentials comparable to that of adriamycin. These results indicate that KT6006 and KT6528 represent a new distinct class of mammalian DNA topoisomerase I active antitumor drugs.