The kinetics of taxol-induced mitotic arrest and apoptosis in murine mammary carcinoma MCA-4 and ovarian carcinoma OCA-I tumors were determined to establish a possible causative relationship between mitotic arrest and apoptosis and to see whether these cellular effects of taxol would correlate with the extent of its antitumor efficacy. Mice bearing 8-mm tumors in a hind leg were given taxol i.v. at a dose of 10-80 mg/kg. Both tumors responded to taxol by significant growth delay or transient regression; in general, the response was greater as the dose of taxol was increased. For kinetics studies the mice were treated with 60 mg/kg taxol given once when tumors were 8 mm in size or twice, with the second dose being given 3 days after the first. At various times ranging from 1 to 96 h after treatment with taxol, tumors were histologically analyzed to quantify mitotic and apoptotic activity. After a single dose of taxol, mitotic arrest was visible at 1 h, and the mitotic index increased with time to reach peak values of 36% in MCA-4 tumors and 22% in OCA-I tumors at 9 h. The index then declined to a baseline of 1%-3% at 3 days for MCA-4 tumors and 1 day for OCA-I tumors. Apoptosis followed mitotic arrest, beginning at the time of peak mitotic arrest, increasing to the highest level of about 20% at 18-24 h after treatment and gradually declining to the normal level of 3%-6% after 3-4 days. Nuclear material progressively condensed in mitotically arrested cells, culminating in the frank appearance of multiple apoptotic bodies. The change in cell morphology plus the dynamics of apoptosis development imply that a large percentage of tumor cells arrested in mitosis by taxol die by apoptosis. Kinetic analysis undertaken after the second dose of taxol showed a considerably lower percentage of cells arrested in mitosis as compared with that seen after a single dose, and the induction of apoptosis by the second dose was minimal. However, the antitumor efficacy of the second dose of taxol was similar to or better than that of the first dose, implying that in addition to mitotic arrest and apoptosis, there exist other mechanisms by which taxol exerts its antitumor action.