The pharmacokinetics of 5-fluorouracil (5-FUra) was investigated in 21 patients with advanced cancer (mainly colorectal cancer). 5-FUra was administered as weekly i.v. bolus injections usually at a starting dose of 500 mg/m2. Every 4 weeks the dose was escalated by 20% until dose-limiting toxicity was observed. Whenever possible, pharmacokinetic studies were performed at dose escalation. 5-FUra plasma concentrations were measured by high pressure liquid chromatography and a sensitive gas chromatography-mass spectrometry assay with a sensitivity as low as 3 x 10(-9) M. According to the 42 plasma concentration versus time curves, in all but one of the patients total body clearance decreased with increasing 5-FUra doses, consistent with the nonlinear pharmacokinetics of 5-FUra. The ultrasensitive assay revealed an almost horizontal phase in the plasma concentration versus time curves at plasma concentrations of 10(-8) to 10(-9) M. This plateau did not show correlation with the area under those curves. The use of a logistic regression method showed that clinical toxicity was correlated with the area under the plasma concentration versus time curve of 5-FUra.