Camptothecins are DNA topoisomerase I-directed anti-tumour drugs with a novel mechanism of action. Topotecan (TPT), a hydrophilic derivative of camptothecin, is currently undergoing phase II clinical trials in small-cell lung cancer (SCLC). Human SCLC OC-NYH cells were made more than 6-fold resistant to topotecan by stepwise drug exposure and resistance was stable for 70 passages without drug. NYH/TPT cells had half the topoisomerase I level and activity of wild-type cells. However, no difference in camptothecin or topotecan inhibition of topoisomerase I-mediated DNA relaxation was found, indicating that the enzyme itself was unchanged in the resistant cell. In NYH/TPT cells, topoisomerase II alpha and beta levels were increased approximately 2-fold. Accordingly, the topoisomerase II-directed drug etoposide (VP-16) induced an increased number of DNA single-strand breaks in NYH/TPT cells. However, sensitivity to different topoisomerase II-targeting agents in NYH/TPT cells varied from increased to decreased, indicating a role for as yet unidentified factors acting on the pathway to cell death after topoisomerase II-induced DNA damage has occurred. Of 20 anti-cancer agents tested, only hydroxyurea showed marked collateral hypersensitivity in NYH/TPT cells.