Human liver slices, human liver microsomes, and rat liver microsomes were used to investigate the metabolism of 3H-taxol. The effects of drugs frequently coadministered with taxol and the effects of several cytochrome P450 system probes were studied. In all, 16 compounds were screened. After incubation with liver slices or with microsomal protein, 3H-taxol was converted into several radioactive species resolved by HPLC. There were qualitative and quantitative species differences in the metabolism of taxol. The pattern of metabolism was similar for both human-derived preparations, with 6 alpha-hydroxytaxol being the major metabolite peak. In drug interaction studies performed with human liver microsomes, cimetidine 80 microM, and diphenhydramine 200 microM, had little or no effect on 6 alpha-hydroxytaxol formation. Quinidine, ketoconazole, dexamethasone and Cremophor EL inhibited 6 alpha-hydroxytaxol formation with IC50 values of 36 microM, 37 microM, 16 microM and 1 microliter/ml, respectively, but these concentrations exceed the usual clinical range. Cremophor EL also inhibited microsomal metabolism of taxol, but at 2 microliters/ml it had little or no effect on 6 alpha-hydroxytaxol production by human liver slices. These results suggest that: (1) taxol is metabolized by the cytochrome P450 system; (2) taxol metabolism is different in humans than in rats; (3) taxol metabolism in humans is unlikely to be altered by cimetidine, dexamethasone, or diphenhydramine, drugs regularly coadministered with taxol; (4) taxol metabolism can be indirectly affected by Cremophor EL, the formulation vehicle; (5) taxol metabolism may be altered by concentrations of ketoconazole achievable in humans only at very high doses; and (6) taxol metabolism and drug interaction studies of clinical relevance can be performed in vitro with human liver microsomes and human liver slices, but not with rat liver preparations.