Porphycene photosensitizers bearing two or four methoxyethyl side chains were synthesized in nine steps from commercially available starting materials. Ether cleavage led to (hydroxyethyl)- and (bromoethyl)porphycenes that were converted to vinyl and benzo derivatives. Five of the side chain-functionalized porphycenes were biologically studied in comparison with two tetra-n-propylporphycenes. Porphycenes were incorporated in small unilamellar liposomes and incubated with cultivated SSK2 murine fibrosarcoma cells. Cellular uptake and phototoxicity 24 h after 5 J/cm2 laser light treatment were determined. The porphycenes tested were between 17 and 220 times more photodynamically active than the currently clinically used sensitizer Photofrin, although extinction coefficients of the porphycenes' irradiated bands are only approximately 10-fold higher. The LD50 concentration for SSK2 cells in the incubation medium was as low as (8.5 +/- 2.8) x 10(-9) M for tetrakis(methoxyethyl)porphycene. Two methoxy or hydroxy groups enhanced cellular uptake, three or four methoxy groups both enhanced and accelerated cellular uptake of tetraalkylporphycenes. Half-life times of the uptake processes varied between (0.14 +/- 0.04) and (14 +/- 4) h and cellular saturation levels between (1.2 +/- 0.2) and (26 +/- 3) pmol/10(5) cells. When individual uptake rates were accounted for, all porphycenes had a similar "cellular" phototoxicity, pointing toward a common mechanism of action. Evidence is presented for the assumption that cell membranes are the primary targets of the tested porphycenes and that membrane solubility may play a critical role in their photodynamic efficiency. The results show that nonionic polar side chain functionalities can strongly enhance cellular uptake and antitumor activity of lipophilic porphyrinoids and thus that the known lipophilicity/activity relationship can be reversed for very hydrophobic sensitizers.