We have studied the growth inhibition, DNA synthesis inhibition and cell incorporation of five 13-dihydrometabolites of anthracyclines in a model of doxorubicin-sensitive and -resistant rat C6 glioblastoma cells. These compounds were major metabolites for doxorubicin, epirubicin, daunorubicin, idarubicin and the new anthracycline 4'-deoxy-4'-iododoxorubicin and are known to be present in appreciable amounts in the plasma of patients treated with these drugs. We have shown that in vitro growth inhibition in sensitive cells was either much lower than that of the parent drug (doxorubicinol, epirubicinol, daunorubicinol), or similar to it (idarubicinol, 4'-iodoxorubicinol). In resistant cells, growth inhibition was about 100 times lower than in wild cells, and was always lower than that of the parent anthracycline. DNA synthesis inhibition occurred in sensitive cells for doses about 100 times higher than those required for growth inhibition, but in resistant cells, similar doses provided growth inhibition and DNA synthesis inhibition. Metabolite incorporation was always lower than that of the corresponding parent anthracycline; it was greatly reduced in resistant cells as compared to sensitive ones. The calculated intracellular concentrations obtained for the same growth inhibition are higher in resistant cells than in sensitive cells; in contrast, the calculated intracellular concentrations obtained for the same DNA synthesis inhibition are similar in resistant and sensitive cells, and similar for all the metabolites studied. These results suggest that the amount of drug incorporated is primarily responsible for DNA synthesis inhibition, which is directly correlated to growth inhibition in resistant cells, but not in sensitive cells.