Despite clear evidence that the effective penetration of the anthracycline antibiotics into experimental tumors or multicell spheroids is poor, these drugs exhibit clinical activity against a variety of solid tumors. In an attempt to understand this apparent contradiction, we used the Chinese hamster V79 spheroid system and flow cytometry techniques for intra-spheroid pharmacological studies of doxorubicin and daunomycin. Our results indicate that the slow delivery of the anthracyclines to the inner cells of spheroids is due to the rapid binding of the drug by cells in the outer layers. After exposure, the anthracyclines are retained much more effectively when cells remain in intact spheroids than when the spheroids have been dispersed, resulting in considerably more cytotoxicity in situ. This result indicates a need for considerable caution in attempting to predict the anti-tumor efficacy of drugs by using either conventional cell-culture systems, spheroids that have been disaggregated immediately post-exposure, or excision assays of tumors from experimental animals. Furthermore, our results suggest the need for a critical evaluation of the significance of the multidrug resistance (MDR) phenotype for cells surrounded by other drug-containing cells as opposed to single cells in drug-free culture medium.