We determined the maximum tolerated dose (MTD), toxicity profile, pharmacokinetic parameters, and preliminary efficacy data of oral sodium phenylbutyrate (PB) in patients with recurrent malignant gliomas. Twenty-three patients with supratentorial recurrent malignant gliomas were enrolled on this dose escalation trial. Four dose levels of PB were studied: 9, 18, 27, and 36 g/day. Data were collected to assess toxicity, response, survival, and pharmacokinetics. All PB doses of 9, 18, and 27 g/day were well tolerated. At 36 g/day, two of four patients developed dose-limiting grade 3 fatigue and somnolence. At the MTD of 27 g/day, one of seven patients developed reversible grade 3 somnolence. Median survival from time of study entry was 5.4 months. One patient had a complete response for five years, and no partial responses were noted, which yielded an overall response rate of 5%. Plasma concentrations of 706, 818, 1225, and 1605 muM were achieved with doses of 9, 18, 27, and 36 g/day, respectively. The mean value for PB clearance in this patient population was 22 liters/h, which is significantly higher than the 16 liters/h reported in patients with other malignancies who were not receiving P450 enzyme-inducing anticonvulsant drugs (P = 0.038). This study defines the MTD and recommended phase 2 dose of PB at 27 g/day for heavily pretreated patients with recurrent gliomas. The pharmacology of PB appears to be affected by concomitant administration of P450-inducing anticonvulsants.