The present study has validated kinetically a convenient method to measure tolbutamide hydroxylation capacity in human beings by use of urinary metabolic ratios. The known in vivo and in vitro inhibitory properties of sulfaphenazole were used to convert control phase subjects to phenotypically "poor" metabolizers of tolbutamide. Six healthy subjects were given a single 500 mg oral dose of tolbutamide with and without sulfaphenazole, 500 mg every 12 hours. Tolbutamide, hydroxytolbutamide, and carboxytolbutamide in urine were determined by newly developed HPLC procedures. Plasma tolbutamide clearance and half-life were measured, as were the metabolic ratio (hydroxytolbutamide + carboxytolbutamide/tolbutamide) in successive 6-hour urine collections. The mean tolbutamide plasma clearance decreased from 0.196 +/- 0.026 ml/min/kg without sulfaphenazole to 0.039 +/- 0.009 ml/min kg with sulfaphenazole, and the mean half-life of tolbutamide increased from 7.28 +/- 0.89 hours to 38.76 +/- 13.30 hours. The metabolic ratio determined in the 6 to 12 hour urine collection period decreased from 794.0 +/- 86.6 to 126.0 +/- 79.3, and this collection period also gave the best separation of subjects between phases. There was a good correlation between tolbutamide plasma clearance and metabolic ratio (rs = 0.853, p less than 0.01, n = 12) and between the percentage decrease in plasma tolbutamide clearance and the percentage decrease in metabolic ratio (r = 0.932, p less than 0.01, n = 6). The tolbutamide urinary metabolic ratio therefore effectively distinguishes tolbutamide hydroxylase activity in "normal" subjects and in those converted to model phenotypically "poor" metabolizers by sulfaphenazole.