An increasing body of evidence appears to implicate the lipid bilayer of multidrug resistant (MDR) cells with P-glycoprotein activity. Several cationic amphiphilic drugs (CADs) have been extensively described as modulators of MDR. These same agents are also known to (1) inhibit lysosomal acid sphingomyelinase (ASmase), a phospholipid degrading enzyme, and/or (2) induce phospholipidosis in animal tissues or cultured cell lines. In this report, we randomly selected 17 CADs and evaluated their potency in modulating MDR in the murine MDR P388/ADR leukemia cell line. We compared these results with their ability to inhibit ASmase and observed a significant dose-dependent linear relationship (95% central confidence interval), between ASmase inhibition and MDR reversal. This approach permitted us to identify three new modestly potent chemosensitizers: trimipramine, desipramine, and mianserine. Modulation of MDR was not cell line specific, since CADs at 10 microM increased doxorubicin (DOX) and vinblastine (VBL) (but not methotrexate, MTX) cytotoxicity in both P388/ADR and the human MDR cell lines MES-SA/Dx5 and K562/R7, but not in the parental drug-sensitive cells. Although all chemosensitizing CADs at 10 microM significantly increased Rhodamine-123 (Rho-123) accumulation in the human leukemia MDR cell line K562/R7 and most presented significant displacement of the photoaffinity labelling probe iodoarylazidoprazosin, no correlation between these observations and the ability of CADs to sensitize MDR cells to DOX and VBL was found. In conclusion, our study strongly suggests that the chemosensitizing potency of agents such as CADs may be due to a dual mechanism of action: direct antagonism of P-gp activity and indirect modulation of P-gp activity through the disruption of cellular lipid metabolism.