Vincristine is used clinically for the treatment of various types of cancer. Recent significant therapeutic improvements obtained by entrapping anthracyclines in sterically stabilized liposomes raised the question whether the therapeutic index of vincristine can be similarly increased by formulation into such long-circulating liposomes. Encapsulation of vincristine in sterically stabilized liposomes (SL-VCR) prolonged the drug's distribution phase plasma half-life in rats from 0.22 to 10.5 hr. There was no significant difference in LD50 (> < or = 2.5 mg/kg, i.v.), but mice given sublethal doses of SL-VCR experienced significantly less weight loss than those given the same dose of free drug. Compared to free drug, SL-VCR was most effective against i.p. or s.c. implanted tumors. However, i.v. tumor inoculation nullified the therapeutic advantage of encapsulation. A single i.v. 2 mg/kg dose of SL-VCR increased the life span of mice bearing i.v. implanted P388 cells by only 44%, while the life span of i.p. P388 implanted mice was increased by 199%. In an s.c. implanted murine colon carcinoma, multiple doses of free drug did little to slow the growth of the tumors, but SL-VCR was able to produce long-term survivors in several dose regimens. These results indicate that prolonged circulation time increases the therapeutic index of VCR entrapped in liposomes against s.c. or i.p. implanted tumors, but does not improve the drug's activity against rapidly growing i.v. disseminated leukemias.