A study was carried out to evaluate the uptake, release and metabolism of four currently used vinca alkaloids, including vinblastine, vincristine, vindesine and navelbine, using freshly isolated human hepatocytes in suspension. The drugs were rapidly taken up and intensely metabolised by the cells, giving a number of yet unidentified biotransformation products. Navelbine was the most rapidly and intensely accumulated drug followed by vinblastine, vindesine and vincristine. The extent of cell uptake appeared to parallel the lipophilicities of these compounds. Interestingly, we found a significant correlation between the mean uptake rates of the vinca alkaloids into the cells, which were 0.279, 0.343, 0.568 and 0.834 pmol/min/10(6) cells for vincristine, vindesine, vinblastine and navelbine, respectively, and the in vivo plasma clearances of the drugs (r = 0.9995, p < 0.001). This finding is of great importance as regards a better understanding of the structure-activity relationship among this class of antitumour drugs, as well as a reliable extrapolation of in vitro results to the in vivo situation.