Slow receptor dissociation kinetics has been implicated in the long clinical duration of action of the muscarinic receptor antagonist tiotropium. However, despite the potential benefits of new drugs with slow dissociation kinetics, the rate parameters of new compounds are seldom measured due to technical difficulties and financial implications associated with radiolabeling multiple ligands. Here we describe the development and optimisation of a medium throughput assay which is capable of measuring the kinetic parameters of novel, unlabelled compounds. Radioligand binding studies were performed with membranes derived from CHO cells recombinantly expressing the human M(3) muscarinic receptor.Initial characterisation of the radioligand [(3)H]-NMS yielded on and off rates of 4.1+/-0.2 x 10(8) M(-1) min(-1) and 0.015+/-0.0005 min(-1), respectively. The specific binding of [(3)H]-NMS was measured over time in the presence and absence of several concentrations of unlabelled competitor compounds. These data were analysed using a competition kinetic model to provide on and off rates for the unlabelled competitor. Comparison of the kinetically derived Kd (k(off)/k(on)) with K(i) values generated at equilibrium showed an excellent correlation (r(2)=0.99), providing good validation of the method. The on and off rates were also used in theoretical computer simulations to successfully predict the effect of incubation time on apparent IC(50) values. This study demonstrates that a medium-throughput competition kinetic binding assay can be used to determine accurate on and off rates of unlabelled compounds, providing the opportunity to optimise for kinetic parameters early in the drug discovery process.