The pharmacokinetics of 7-ethyl-10-[4-(1-piperidino)-1-piperidino]carbonyloxycamptothecin (CPT-11) and its active metabolite, 7-ethyl-10-hydroxycamptothecin (SN-38), were examined to establish the pharmacokinetic variability of the active lactones of CPT-11 and SN-38 in comparison with that of the total (lactone and carboxylates) plasma CPT-11 and SN-38. Twelve patients with malignancies were entered in the study. All received 100 mg/m2 of CPT-11 by intravenous drip infusion over 90 min. Blood was sampled at 10 time points in heparin-containing syringes. Analysis by high-performance liquid chromatography showed that the ratio of CPT-11 lactone to total CPT-11 concentration was highest (66%) just after the end of infusion and gradually decreased to 30% at 24 h. Almost 70% of SN-38 lactone was detected after the end of infusion and this decreased to 50% within 24 h. The standard errors of percent lactone of CPT-11 of SN-38 to total drug concentration at each sampling point were less than 12%. The area under the concentration-time curve (AUC) of total CPT-11 and that of total SN-38 were significantly correlated with the AUCs of the lactone CPT-11 and those of lactone SN-38, respectively. We conclude that, for practical purposes, monitoring of total CPT-11 and SN-38 has essentially the same clinical significance as monitoring of lactone CPT-11 and SN-38.