Adriamycin accumulation and metabolism were studied in three distinct groups of human ovarian cancer cell lines: those derived from previously untreated patients, those from clinically refractory (relapsed) patients, and those with induced resistance to adriamycin in vitro. The 2-hr [14C] adriamycin accumulation in cell lines from previously untreated patients (A2780 and A1847 [Eva et al., Nature, Lond. 295, 116 (1982)] and OVCAR-5 [National Institutes of Health human OVarian CAR-cinoma cell line no. 5]) was 11-14 ng/10(6) cells. 2780AD and 1847AD (variants with in vitro induced resistance to adriamycin) accumulated one-third as much adriamycin after 2 hr (4 ng/10(6) cells). However, three cell lines derived from clinically refractory patients accumulated the same amount of adriamycin as cell lines from untreated patients (8-13 ng/10(6) cells). A high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) assay for adriamycin and its analogs confirmed these results and demonstrated only parent drug (no metabolites) in any of the cell lines tested. These results demonstrate that the primary mechanism of adriamycin resistance in some ovarian cancer cells from clinically refractory patients is not enhanced metabolism of drug or a transport defect leading to a decreased net accumulation such as has been described for cells with in vitro induced resistance to adriamycin.