6-mercaptopurine (6-MP) can be inactivated by S-methylation, which is catalysed by thiopurine methyltransferase (TPMT). An alternative metabolic route leads to the formation of cytotoxic 6-thioguanine nucleotides (6-TGN). To investigate whether these two pathways compete with each other to affect the therapeutic response to 6-MP, 6-TGN concentrations and TPMT enzymatic activity were measured in erythrocytes (RBC) from 95 children on long-term 6-MP therapy for lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). RBC TPMT activities were also measured in 130 control children and 104 long-term survivors of ALL no longer on treatment. The 95 children on 6-MP showed wide interindividual differences in RBC 6-TGN concentrations at the full protocol dose of 75 mg/m2, and RBC 6-TGN concentrations correlated negatively with RBC TPMT activity. Children with 6-TGN concentrations below the group median had higher TPMT activities and a higher subsequent relapse rate. 50 of the 104 long-term survivors had been treated with "gentle" low-dose protocols, and this subgroup contained an excess of children with lower TPMT activities compared with normal controls. These results indicate that genetically determined TPMT activity may be a substantial regulator of the cytotoxic effect of 6-MP, an effect which in turn could be important in influencing the outcome of therapy for childhood ALL.