Drug permeation across the plasma membrane of multidrug-resistant cells depends on the kinetics of the P-glycoprotein-mediated pump activity as well as on the passive permeation of the drug. We here demonstrate a method to characterize kinetically the pump in intact cells. To this purpose, we examined the membrane-transport properties of daunorubicin in various sensitive cancer cell lines and in their multidrug resistant (MDR) counterparts. First, we determined the passive permeability coefficient for daunorubicin. Then, using a flow-through system, the drug flux into the cell was measured after inhibition of the P-glycoprotein-mediated efflux pump. Combining the two results allowed us to calculate the intracellular free concentration of the drug. In the steady-state, the pump rate must equal the net rate of passive diffusion of the drug and, therefore, the same experiments gave us the pumping rate of daunorubicin. These experiments were then repeated at various extracellular drug concentrations. By plotting the pumping rate versus the intracellular drug concentration, we then characterized the P-glycoprotein kinetically. Four independent methods were used to measure the passive permeability coefficient for the cell line A2780. Similar values were obtained. Maximal pump rates (Vmax) showed a good correlation with the amount of P-glycoprotein in the cell lines used. We obtained saturation curves for the variation of the pump rates with the intracellular daunorubicin concentrations. These curves were typical for positive cooperativity, which provides evidence that at least two binding sites for daunorubicin are present on the active transport system of daunorubicin. The apparent Km values for P-glycoprotein-mediated transport, the intracellular free cytosolic daunorubicin concentrations at half-maximal velocity for the cell lines used, were approximately 1.5 microM. Except for the cell lines with the highest amount of P-glycoprotein, the passive efflux rate of daunorubicin proved to be a substantial part of the total daunorubicin efflux rate for the cell lines used. In cell lines with relatively low levels of P-glycoprotein, passive daunorubicin efflux was even the main route of daunorubicin transport from the cells, determining the intracellular steady-state concentrations of daunorubicin.